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Almost Human, Almost GreatKeywords: TV.
Almost Human was a show I wasn’t aware of at all. I had no idea it was in development. The first I heard of it was when people started commenting on the pilot episode on Twitter. A near future cop show in the mould of late eighties and early nineties fair like Robocop and Total Recall? The cop show crucible in a world where technology has gone out of control? Throw in the almost human android as a partner and it sounded like a great concept.
I’ve been binging on it lately, watching all eight episodes that have been aired, and it’s a show that is almost great.
Karl Urban, as the troubled Detective Kennex, and Michael Ealy, as the almost human android, are nothing short of brilliant. As far as casting goes the show has pulled a complete blinder. They work really well together as a partnership. The ‘cop buddy show’ element works really well. Karl Urban manages to be the curmudgeon cop while still being amazingly likeable. Michael Ealy does a great job of actually being the more empathic character despite being the android, which is a dynamic they should play up more as it is core to the series. If the characters have any faults it’s in the writing as their issues and the themes that surround them just aren’t pushed aggressively enough. We’ll come back to that.
The show looks fantastic. Like any TV show they have to economise over the course of the season and they do this by keeping things very near future. At times the setting isn’t that different in terms of the streets and buildings. They just do enough to maintain a compelling illusion. The technology interactions are great. The use of fancy screens and holographic displays work really well. The virtual crime scene tape works every time they use it. The crimes and the new technology behind them also work (over time it’ll throw in a lot of the concepts often given over to whole films). The vehicles are given enough cosmetic dressing (their police evokes Robocop). It feels near future. It feels like films it gets its influence from but with technology that doesn’t feel anachronistic. It feels authentic, which is a great achievement. The shows production across the board is very well delivered.
At the moment the show is falling into a crime of the week structure. There is zero on-going story. No heavy serialisation. This is quite refreshing due to the heavily serialised nature of quality TV these days. I have no problem with episodic shows as they have numerous advantages as they can explore different types of stories, deliver great, self-contained narratives and mix up mood and style occasionally. In truth, Almost Human doesn’t do this, it has a very set delivery like many cop shows we’ve seen over time. The episodes have mostly been focused on technology crimes: androids for sex, clones, designer drugs, blackmail through the Internet of Things, etc. They work well, but they need to introduce some serial elements in terms of consequences. We’ll come back to that.
Despite all the great individual elements you are left with a feeling Almost Human is satisfied with being reliable, good and almost great instead of being fantastic. It feels like it is coasting. Very good coasting, but coasting nonetheless.
The show fails to push the issues of the characters and the themes of the show aggressively enough. They are present, but they are very lightweight. Themes come up in the crime of the week but not really in a way that really matters. This isn’t good enough. Why isn’t the show exploring the issue of being ‘almost human’ more deeply and with bigger fall out? The grey areas around this concept explored through the personalities of Kennex and Dorian. Neither does it push the relationship between Kennex and Dorian especially in the area of how everyone else sees Dorian? Why isn’t the fact that Kennex himself part ‘android’ explored more? What about background issue of Kennex and how this could fit into the ‘almost human’ question? In short, the characters need to stop coasting from interesting case to case and start having to face hard questions, consequences and issues based on their choices and the theme of the show.
Until the show does this it will continually sit on the edge of greatness, failing to deliver something bigger than the sum of its awesome parts. I hope it kicks these areas into gear. If it does, Almost Human could be a veritable classic.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 26/01/2014|
Small Town USA WesternKeywords: TV.
It was probably to be expected that someone would eventually realise that a Jack Reacher TV series might be a good idea. A badass with issues walks into town and rights wrongs often through being capable of extreme voilence with his own sense of justice. You’d have to tweak the format a bit to allow the main protagonist to stay in the town, with all its Western genre sensibilities, but it provides a good model.
Okay, so Banshee isn’t really a Jack Reacher TV series exactly, but it’s the closest we have to it.
The premise is simple. Lucas Hood and the love of his life, Anastasia, perform a jewel theft for a violent, Ukranian gangster called Rabbit, Anastasia’s father. It goes wrong, Lucas gets captured to ensure Anastasia escapes and spends fifteen years in prison. That’s the past. The crucible of the series is Lucas masquerading as someone else, the new sheriff of Banshee, allowing him to right those wrongs in the eponymous ‘small town’, because that is where Anastasia has her new life. Queue lots of Western influenced stories, violence, sex and corruption while Lucas and Anastasia’s relationship is dealt with alongside flashbacks to the past and Rabbit seeks revenge.
Like the Jack Reacher novels, Antony Starr as Lucas Hood manages to generate the right level of empathy, destructive violence and sex appeal to work for both the male and female audience. He is a stronger character than Jack Reacher, his love for Anastasia really works and the way they layer his past into the present, especially his time in prison, is really well done (you really feel the tension and violence of those fifteen years). In a similar way, other key characters really work. Kai Proctor, the evil man who ‘owns the town’, manages to be much more complex than his counterparts and the development of his niece, the Amish girl by day but party girl by night, is very well done (and, I’ll admit it, her sex scenes are a draw). The web of relationships is great.
The violence of the show is…extraordinary for TV. Normally this would not be appealing as it is quite brutal, making you wince at times. It works because it’s woven through the fabric of the show giving it a level of foreboding and righteous vengeance. When someone is in danger it unsettles you. When it looks like violence might erupt on an innocent party you worry. In turn, when Lucas Hood decides to act you feel a sense of visceral reward.
The series feels dangerous and this mildly unsettling feel really works.
There are a surprising amount of sex scenes. I suspect there is a rule that there must always be one. They are surprising revealing for a US TV. Okay, they’re not really any different to the ones in Game of Thrones, but that shows slowly backed away from them, they’ve consistently been a part of Banshee. I’ll admit it, they’re great. Nothing wrong with a bit of titillation and I suspect they work for both sexes. They also served a purpose. When Lucas and Anastasia finally slept together again at the end of season one it felt, extraordinarily romantic, because of the different way it was filmed to all the other sex scenes in the series.
The mixture of danger arrives in town, small town corruption, Lucas’s past and current masquerade and the relationships between the inhabitants, combined with the action heroes living amongst normal folk sort of shtick (Lucas and Anastasia are action hero capable), along with the violence and the sex it is an intoxicating mix. The first series has been brilliant, culminating in a great, violent conclusion not that far away from some Hollywood films – including a house wrecking fifteen minute fight between Anastasia and an ex-friend from the Ukranian gang.
It’s well worth watching. It’s a very slick show. If you like the 'Jack Reacher style fiction' that is hitting the book shelves these days then Banshee is probably the TV show for you.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 25/01/2014|
Gumshoe Spy ThrillersKeywords: Role-Playing Games.
I got two things over Christmas (other than spending the holiday sunning myself in Fuertaventura): 13th Age and Night’s Black Agents. These games are what you would call my first serious ‘post-Fate love’ purchase. I still adore Fate, but finding other systems that might appeal to me is always good, and I’m still not convinced half the group like Fate for anything but convention length games (if at all) anyway.
I’ve been absorbing both, but today we’re discussing Night’s Black Agents.
Night’s Black Agents is one of those games I should have probably had on my ‘to get’ list when it was released over a year ago. If you discount volumes of internet discussion one of the game designers who has influenced my approach to gaming so much is Robin D Laws (mostly through Fengshui, the game full of running games like action films, and Over the Edge, the game a 1001 early Indie games span off from). Throw in a system designed to run cinematic spy thrillers well, a favourite genre of mine, designed by Laws, and what’s possibly not to love?
Night’s Black Agents is one of those games that passes the first test: it makes you want to play it…now. It’s not so much the atmosphere of setting and place, but more the love, knowledge and understanding of cinematic thrillers of various types. This is suffused through the character and skills section to the point you want to make all sorts of exciting characters that you know will be modelled well as tough, resourceful, clever and deadly cinematic protagonists. The system also manages to convince you the hacker will be as awesome as the archaeologist who will be given a run for his money by the CIA analyst while still allowing the gun-toting assassin to do his stuff.
The core strength of the system comes from how it handles skills: it models skills like they are used in cinematic thrillers. The gathering of information (Investigative skills) are separated from normal, general skills (those handy at the sharp end). This models the structure of thrillers in that the information gathering acts as a connecting mechanism (the how to get there skills) to rising conflict and action (the skills used in the cinematic action). The protagonists join the connections in cool and slick ways, never really standing around stumped. That’s the theory.
This is why investigative skills always succeed.
While not getting into the detail of this, it basically means the system models what any half-decent GM knows already: you never want the players to fail to find the clues. As a result, you move clues to different people and places to make sure they are found. The Gumshoe system supports this by allowing the experts in their field to always find the connecting clues, one could even say the clues are defined by the skills the players’ choose to use (though this isn’t explicit). These skills, along with neat stuff like Cover, Network and Preparedness (allowing protagonists to conjure up identities, individuals and prepared stuff on the fly) adds ‘game structure’ to how any GM, who doesn’t want his game to descend into frustration and confusion, knows his game has to operate anyway.
General skills operate in a more typical way. You roll a dice and add skill points and see if you get over a set difficulty. The wrinkle is the skill points are not your skill level but points allocated from your kill level as a pool. This means you can effectively run out, meaning you roll a basic die. The protagonists key skills, the highest ones, have ways to refresh it would seem. The highest ones also have cherries, effectively cool Fengshui-style shticks that further elevates their awesome.
At the moment, I have two visions of Gumshoe. In the book it all sounds natural and perfect. In reality, when we played it through Trail of Cthulhu, it didn’t feel as fluid as the text probably suggested in the Trail book. There was the ‘do I need to spend an investigation point here’ moments and ‘is there another clue to find’ pauses. This would cause the GM to break the fourth wall repeatedly to say we’d milked the scene dry. In a strange way, I felt this sort of defeated the point? As for general skills, it’s all too easy to become concerned about whether you should spend them now or later!
Still, I think there is some learning with respect to executing the system effectively and I think that learning sits in a few areas: where are the clues and are they active or passive? In the Trail of Cthulhu game where the clues sat was with the GM and they all seemed to be active (they required a point spend to find). To keep the game running smoothly and for the scenes of rising conflict and action to flow I suspect ‘where’ the clues are has to be, if not completely, to some degree defined by where the protagonists look? The distribution of passive and active clues may also have to be more varied and dynamic to events. It may also ease the ‘prep burden’ as you move to the principles of what could connect the scenes rather than being very specific at the design point.
There is all sorts of other good looking stuff in Night’s Black Agents that I’ve not fully got to yet. The combat system (which could make or break it). The design of the vampires. The conspiracy design tools that need to be in the toolbox of any GM (along with the advice on clues and information driving stories). Thrilling chases and combats. Then you have info on spy agencies and European cities. It’s a dense, but very interesting book.
The true genius of Night’s Black Agents is, though it wraps things up in the premise of ‘the vampire spy thriller’ to provide focus, give the game an immediate purpose and a tagline or sound bite, the game is much more than that.
In the first instance, what counts as a ‘vampire’ is quite broad within the definition of the book. In the second, it already includes other ‘monsters’ making it more of a supernatural spy thriller (despite the vampires possibly being aliens, a sentient virus or whatever). In the third, it would work just as well with the Cthulhu Mythos. Finally, the spread of skills and how they work means the ‘spy thriller’ could actually just be a cinematic thriller consisting of no one who is actually a spy, but instead archaeologists, scientists and mercenaries of action investigating a global conspiracy. Hell, the game even supports people getting all CSI, though a campaign purely based on that would be a stretch.
In short, what you are getting is a great system for any game that falls into the narrative rhythm of thrillers featuring Homo Fictus, competent characters whether this is something like a Dan Brown novel, or something Tomb Raider-esque.
This is a great prospect.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/01/2014|
Bullets, Money & FPS DisorientationKeywords: Video Games.
A number of weeks back I came across Borderlands 2 for £12 in in ASDA. Spontaneous purchase. I figure you can’t go too far wrong for that much even if you just play it sporadically? The same weekend I put it into the PlayStation, tried to play it and promptly stopped due to sensory overload and serious FPS disorientation. It just did my head in. I figured, put the game away, and come back to it later when I’m possibly in the right frame of mind for it.
I came back to it yesterday and it’s starting to flow.
Wind back a bit. The first problem was class and levelling strategy. I was going to play solo so it was important to pick the right class. It seems this game isn’t as solo friendly as the first one according to some, but there is nothing I can do about that now. I went for the Commando on the basis it got the most votes as a solo friendly class. It has the disadvantage of being the equivalent to the class I played in the original Borderlands. It then took a while to pull a build off the web so I could spend my experience points without creating some sort of broken character of extreme ineptitude. This took a few hours or so.
I’ve not played an FPS for some considerable time so there was some acclimatisation that needed to occur. It may actually go back to when I stopped playing the original Borderlands. Since then, the closest I’ve come is third-person action games (Uncharted, Tomb Raider, and Splinter Cell) which aren’t remotely the same. I also tend to prefer the third person perspective, cover mechanics, etc. Borderlands 2 initially felt cramped with everything being too close, quick to get on top of you and lateral and vertical movements way to confusing and fast. I’ve took my usual way to resolving this: going slow and managing my battle space so I’m not moving around too quickly. Use distance. Channel the enemy along controlled routes. Pull selectively where possible, though that’s of limited use in Borderlands.
I’ve reached the end of quest chain involving Claptrap and I’m now at my first major boss: Captain Flint. I detest bosses. It was always the same in World of Warcraft, I always seemed to be the only one who liked the strangely therapeutic experience of cutting through the trash and seeing the new environments to get to the boss. The big, set piece boss battles tended to leave me cold after that and I always just wanted to get through them as quickly as possible. I’ve tried to take him out a few times but I seem to be causing a ridiculously low amount of damage with each hit and each time I try means I lose money buying more ammo.
Early days, but at this rate I’d run out of cash before killing him!
This brings me to the main problem at the moment: money and ammunition. It’s quite easy to run out of ammo and then you have to buy more. This is a combination of what I can carry, the guns I have and my crap aiming. This is hampered by the fact that if you decide to quit for a bit and save the game it seems the enemies come back but your ammo remains the same. The enemies reset after save but your ammo is persistent. This means you have to spend money to kill what you’ve already progressed through. I’ve not ran out of both yet, making it impossible to progress, but I am living on the breadline all the time and accumulating very few resources. The odd thing that does come up that looks like a good purchase, such as a better shield, is invariably too expensive.
This feels different to the original Borderlands which always seemed to keep the ammo situation pretty smooth in terms of always dropping enough and off the right type to keep resources and killing efficiency acceptable. I felt I had to find an ammo dispenser much less frequently in the original game, surviving just off ammo drops. This version drops ammo, but it always seems to be ammo I have at full (shotgun ammo for instance) due to me not using that type of gun.
Still, I’m in. I am playing. I am enjoying it. A bit like Diablo III it’s a game you just casually drop into. It would be cool to play through it multiplayer with a team, more chaos, more enemies, more loot, but that will never happen.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 09/12/2013|
The Life Logging ThingKeywords: Life; Technology.
A while back I read a couple of paragraphs somewhere on life logging and an app called Saga. Then I forgot completely about it. I’ve even forgot what directed me to the idea again, I’ve downloaded the Saga Android App and began an experiment in life logging.
It’s probably worth getting something straight first: I realise this is a bit strange and my life is nowhere near exciting enough to make it worth logging all the time. I do like playing around with Apps occasionally, especially ones that take advantage of the various technologies on your mobile phone. I’ve been experimenting with Saga since last Sunday.
But, what is its thing?
Saga uses the GPS in your phone and connections to other Apps to create a life log. Sounds exciting, but it’s potentially more mundane, especially since you’re probably already giving a narrative to these things through Facebook and Twitter anyway. It does its best to log when you’re travelling and the places you visit. It then learns about you, which hopefully makes the logging more accurate, and starts to record stats and tag you with traits. As an example, it needs to recognise your home and place of work relatively early on due to most of us spending the majority of our time in either of these locations.
You can connect Saga to other Apps, and I suspect the success of the App will be these connections. At the moment I’ve got it linked to Facebook and Twitter so it can merge updates to these Apps into the recorded timeline. Goodreads so it can pull in my updates on the books I have read. I’ve also integrated Pinterest, but I’ve not used this much. There is a range of other Apps you can integrate with it from Foursquare, through various fitness Apps to Last.fm to link in the music you are scrobbling. I suspect the more data the better.
It’s been a strange process so far, as it’s been both very accurate and inaccurate. Saga seems to log travel times really well. It accurately logs car journeys and walks to and from the office to the supermarket, etc. It has a harder time with places. It suggests you can just ignore it and it logs up a picture of your life but it doesn’t really do this unless you effectively check-in. At least it doesn’t do it yet. As an example, I walked to the supermarket and back to the office and it recorded it all as travel time. It will log the time at the supermarket if I check-in. It doesn’t seem to then automatically recognise that place again. Once it knows a place it will accurately identify it as your now location, but so far it’s done this through me pulling up the App. I need to experiment by leaving it just logging without interacting for ages across multiple known locations to see how well it does.
The weirdest thing about the Saga is it can log things completely correctly but a day or so later it changes it to be incorrect! It’ll get a journey correct and a period of time at a place and then 24 or so hours later the stay at the place will have shrunk and the hours consumed by the journey will have radically increased. This is a bit annoying as you then you have to make it correct guessing some of the timings it had gotten correct first time. This sort of defeats the point of the App. I have no idea why it does this. It must being reviewing the data and making different decisions.
It’s early days in terms of traits and statistic, but I am interesting in seeing what it comes up with for these things. I am assuming I’ll get a full set of stats once I’ve used it for a week. I’m specifically interested in what traits it’s going to be able to divine on what is a relatively mundane and normal life in GPS terms.
The biggest conundrum with Saga is it seems it’s exactly when your life is potentially at its most mundane that you are likely to use it. If you go gallivanting abroad to all sorts of wonderful and exciting places you have to jump through hoops to keep your mobile data, for instance. Also, Saga can only be used in a very limited set of countries: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden, United Kingdom and the United States. I’m guessing the EU, by and large, is being an epic fun sponge due to privacy laws. It seems you’ll have a gap in your life log just as things had got interesting.
The other wrinkle is Saga shifts the dynamic a bit in relation to other platforms like Facebook and Twitter. There is a certain element of narrative going on with these platforms. It’s not that you lie, but you do tend to frame and contextualise. Saga doesn’t really do this it’s more focused on facts. Often quite mundane facts. As an example, I did three 11-hour work days last week? I know that happens but it was still a bit of an eyebrow raiser to see as a fact on the screen.
I’m still finding the experiment interesting enough to continue. I’m not entirely sure it’s something I’ll keep going with long-term as after a month of it I’m pretty sure it will just be recording similar stats every week and a horrible, depressing similar sequence of events. Apparently, people life log to get all ‘big data’ on their lives to discover patterns of behaviour so they can change them. Improve their life. Eat more vegetables. Spend more time with the family. Read more books. I’m not convinced I need some form of empirical data to make me aware of some of these facts (assuming Saga would even reveal some of them).
I understand you can download your data and crunch it with serious software. I guess some people take it very seriously.
|Permalink | Comments(4) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 30/11/2013|
Catching Fire…Caught Fire!Keywords: Film; Film Review.
Catching Fire is a difficult book as it is, in many ways, a structural repeat of the first book. This is magnified by the fact that the novels are written in first person so we only get to experience what Katniss directly experiences. If you compound this with the fact it’s purely a bridging story, representing a 100% middle section, it’s safe to say it was a risky proposition.
Despite all this it was absolutely brilliant.
The film is surprisingly brutal, tense and traumatic. Yes, it doesn’t actually show much. There is very little blood. A lot happens just off camera. This doesn’t seem to matter. You feel the oppression of the regime. You feel the weight of the claustrophobic corner Katniss is being pushed into by powers greater than herself. You actually feel manipulated. It’s very well done and shows perfectly that showing the blood and guts of such stories isn’t necessary for the oppression and lack of justice to be fully felt. The way the film is filmed, edited and acted gets a lot of credit here.
Indeed, it was only about fifteen minutes in and I was already getting quite emotional over it all.
Like The Hunger Games film I think Catching Fire is better than the book largely because it drops the first person narrative. This means you are free of the extended internal monologues of the protagonist. You have to show not tell and showing is often quicker and less laboured. You get the larger fabric of the setting and its players explored, specifically stuff with President Snow. They also did some really interesting stuff with her sister. While she’s not in many scenes she is very good in them and cements the fact that her sister is becoming a sort of heroic figure in herself for different reasons and becoming loved by the populace. I don’t remember this but it makes a great bridge to key events in the third book that might be done a lot better in the final films.
Surprisingly, even the elements of repetition didn’t feel like a well-trodden road. I think this was because things changed just enough. The setting is realised beautifully, this is something they seem to have improved on in Catching Fire. The build of the districts rebelling is done well. Even the slow, turn of the people in the capital works out well noticed in crowd reactions. Then you have characters changing, representing that shift on a micro-scale, such as changes in Effie Trinket regarding events. As for events in the Hunger Game itself, they’re actually more interesting in this film in terms of the action and the pacing.
It’s possibly the passage of time that has dulled my memory but in the film the anger experienced by the betrayal of the victors of previous Hunger Games seemed to come across better and stronger. It felt like the film better portrayed the fact that it was this very decision that was the beginning of Snow’s undoing and the heroism of some of the Victors to uphold the heroic image of Katniss and keep her alive was better executed. You felt their sacrifice in the face of the greater good against the true enemy.
The final scenes are interesting in that I hope they are significant for the final two films. It’s suffice to say I have problems with the third book (and to a less extend the second which didn’t feel as big an issue in the film). I felt that, by the third book, Katniss should have stopped being the reluctant and accidental hero. Regrettably, this isn’t the case she still remains one during almost the whole third book. While it’s not as bad as this, it would be a bit like the Captain America film having the hero as the token figure head doing the song and dance routines until way too far into them film along with the lack of respect, manipulation of the hero and him not stepping up that would entailed.
The transformation that plays out on our protagonists face, from sadness to anger, very well done by Lawrence, in the final moments of the film, hopefully tells us that while being politically manipulated is fine, Katniss in the final films is going to be a more willing hero with an active mission in the remaining two films. One can only hope as I think the ‘victim of circumstance and bigger powers’ thing, if played out too much, my get a bit tired in the third and fourth film as it did in the book. It doesn’t have to be a big change, it’s just a shift of attitude and language with respect to the main protagonist.
Bring on the final two films, hopefully not too far apart.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 24/11/2013|
Holy Old School Crunch!Keywords: Role-Playing Games.
There are numerous things that where acceptable in the 80’s: mullets, stone washed jeans, mad perms, wearing odd-coloured fluorescent socks, loafers, skinny trousers a tad too short and numerous other fashion mistakes. In terms of RPGs, what was also acceptable in the 80’s, was ridiculous, epic crunch often with different, widely varied subsystems of perplexing crunch which inter-related in ways only the half mad could fully fathom.
I’ve played such systems in my time, most notably Middle Earth Role-Playing, which was tantamount to playing Rolemaster, and that can only need to madness and lots of tables. I’ve not run such a game, or if I have I’ve wiped it from my mind. The closest I might have come is a few sessions of Warhammer Fantay Roleplay here and there. I did play Golden Heroes a lot, which wasn’t that complicated, but it did involve division to work out damage. What were they thinking?
The next game to be played by the role-playing group in the eponymous Sunday slot is: Shadowrun 5th edition. I created my character during Cottage Con 2013, well, one might say less ‘created’ and more assigned a load of stuff in as little a random way as I could muster across a multi-stage process that seemed to take hours and that was with me not putting too much effort into equipment. It was an endurance event. It’s safe to say the game feels so old school it was giving me flashbacks.
Having come back at the character a few times since I can describe the process only as irritating, annoying, time consuming and just something I begrudged the time I’ve spent on it (and that’s with numerous people helping me out and actually doing the hard bit). It doesn’t help that I don’t have the time for these sort endeavours anymore, but the setup is also painful. It’s just so involved due to presenting too many interacting choices to get to a complex way of describing what you’re character can do. It doesn’t even tough or mechanically represent who the character is, beyond some old school disadvantages (which are easier to max out for some character types than others unless you want to find yourself running away from prawns, e.g an allergy to sea food).
It’s my worst nightmare in that it is obviously a game that has a significant and on-going character build game. You can build your character in many different ways and it would seem to make quite a difference. A part of the game is improving, getting more widgets, getting more stuff, earning more money, assigning more equipment. To be honest: I don’t really care about that much.
Despite all this I’m really looking forward to Shadowrun. It’s the visuals that sell it.
Let’s face it I love contemporary settings, the potential for the modern world to be writ large in glorious Technicolor: glorious landscapes, epic buildings, etc. While Shadowrun is set in the future the art paints fascinating cityscapes of skyscrapers, neon and futuristic vehicles. It looks fantastic. It’s also packed with awesome. Ancient, methuselah dragons ruling corporations. A plethora of characters in all sorts of action scenes oozing cool. I’ve not spent much time with the book, just glancing through it, and it paints a picture that inspires you to play it.
Let’s face it, it rolls together near future cool, elements of cinematic espionage, the clash of races, magic and technology. It actually folds in a lot of the modern, action film ‘stuff’ that I tend to love. So there is a lot to going for it.
Ultimately, the telling thing is, system aside, it immediately inspired me to frame a character in my mind. Admittedly, she’s largely a type, concept and set of visuals at this point but it was immediate. Ruby from the video game WET was the inspiration. For whatever reason this never happened with Dungeon World, the character remained a cipher, a playing piece. I had some idea, but it never seemed to solidify. I went straight for the jugular when Shadowrun became a possibility and sourced the image and started to throw concepts around in my head. This is the best sign of all I’m looking forward to it.
It begins in a week ‘Chummer’. I think that’s the lingo? Or it was, back in the 80’s.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 22/11/2013|
A Cottage And Some GamesKeywords: Role-Playing Games; Board Games; CottageCon.
Cottage Con. A simple idea. A group of friends get together to play games of various sorts in a remote, to varying degrees, cottage. It also involves lots of food. Initially this was the gaming group but has subsequently expanded to involve a wider group of friends. Surprisingly, I’ve lost track of how many Cottage Cons there have been. I went to the first two in May 2007 and the second in early March 2008, we really crammed them together back in the day, then that was it.
It worked out well though. Really enjoyed it.
Battle in the Skies
A week ago the latest one took place. A whole 5 – 6 years since the last one I went to, which is a bit mindboggling.
Cottage Con has changed over the years. Initially it involved less people and was almost completely dominated by role-playing games. Now it’s become more diverse both in terms of who attends and also the games that are played. It now covers board games, mini-gaming, war games and role-playing games. This is a good thing. Have to admit, going into it, I was a bit ‘meh’ about the whole thing. I’ve currently got a bit of a gaming twilight thing going on with respect to me and role-playing games and while I don’t mind board and some mini games I wasn’t sure I wanted to dedicate a weekend to them!
The location was fantastic, though it possibly was the remotest location we’ve used. Fantastically positioned, and near good roads, but it was only accessible by the equivalent of a mountain bike course that you were supposed to drive your car up. I went the wrong way and ended up at The Bog, essentially a farm that felt like some remote homestead off of some zombie apocalypse film complete with rabid barking dogs from inside mysterious barns. The road was ridiculous, especially when I had to backtrack along it. Still, I got their quite easily thanks to Google Maps. One car got lost and had to be rescued from a remote road and another had battery issues. It was perfect for a gaming weekend along with lovely views from on the top of a hill.
In terms of the games it was remarkably RPG lite, with only two on offer in the first place, and I opted for only one. The schedule was: Super Dungeon Explore, Star Wars: X-Wing, a narrative Confrontation scenario and 13th Age. Lest I not forget, creating a Shadowrun character, which felt like some sort of surreal game slot in itself.
Friday evening was Super Dungeon Explore. The game was probably tainted somewhat by being a bit tired (I started well, suffered in the middle and then seemed to burn through it) and my selection of a character that seemed to rely on other classes being present to interact with to bring the awesome. It’s still a great game though and would certainly play it again. It’s basically a dungeon-delving type of game that plays like a board game version of a Japanese CRPG. It’s quite clever. A combination of gear seemed to turn my Paladin into a strange fire goo flinging awesome bomb towards the final third.
The first game on Saturday was Star Wars: X-Wing. It’s one of those games that has what I call a high ‘theoretical investment rating’ (a number of others enter this category such as Descent and the D&D board games). It’s something that appeals, but actually buying into it would always remain theoretical due to outlay and probably, for various reasons, not actually getting around to playing it that much. It’s a good game though. The miniatures are great and it helped that I had an understanding of the units from familiarity with the WEG Star Wars RPG. I seemed to get the heavy fighter fleet which included a B-Wing and Y-Wing which can take quite a lot of punishment. It is one of those games that is simply complex. It’s simple to understand but is quite complex in play, specifically how you set the moves of your ships and how that interacts with the order the vessels actually move in. I also like how the pilots have a major influence on the abilities of the ships. It was a fun game which, after round after round of random movement, I actually won by running a Firespray-31 (Boba Fett’s ship) of the map with a battered Y-Wing. Exciting stuff.
We nearly didn’t play the second game on Saturday, a Confrontation narrative scenario, due to time catching up with us. We decided to go for it after and it was well worth it as it was easily the best experience of the whole weekend. The idea was simple: five players, each with a small number of units based around individual heroes and few henchmen all of them having different objectives to achieve. If I was to get into mini-gaming it is this sort of thing I like. I’m not interested in the vast armies, more the skirmish and / or hero-based games. It was exciting stuff. There should be more games intentionally designed like this.
13th Age. I really enjoyed it both in terms of the set-up, the characters and, the surprising bit, the system. The set-up was a variation on the novel Legend with a number of characters finding themselves at an ancient fortress, for various reasons, as the horde approached to overrun it and invade ‘The Empire’. It had the usual convention-game sort of feel, or at least the feel of the ones that tend to manifest at Cottage Con: a lot of people individually bringing the personal awesome. It was great fun though. The characters were really well envisioned and were some of the best pre-gens I’ve seen. You could get really into them very quickly.
The surprise was the system. Have to admit after 2.5 years of playing 4th Dungeons Dragons I wasn’t really in the frame of mind to play a class-based, D&D ‘variant’ in our Sunday sessions (this probably impacted Dungeon World as well, albeit that is a very different game). As it happens this is now Shadowrun, but I’d have been happy to play 13th Age after Cottage Con. It’s quite clever, throwing enough narrative stuff in to make it work. The system also works in ways that ensures it appeals to me. Its small things. Like the escalation die. The backgrounds and how they interact with the system. The way the fighters powers are applied after the roll making it a roll + awesome rather than always having to select from the infinity of them all. It seems to offer a great balance between fun, options and ease of play with some narrative juice. Great stuff.
In fact, the genius of 13th Age is it seems to be a D&D-style variant that I could run with. A sweet spot so to speak. Nice.
A great weekend. Roll on the next one.
|Permalink | Comments(2) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 16/11/2013|
Diablo 3 Into Act 2Keywords: Video Games.
I finished act one of Diablo 3 yesterday, which brings a welcome change of location. Still enjoying the game which has fallen into a regular cycle of play. I tend to drop into the odd online games for the quest I am currently on and enjoy the chaos of having multiple characters hacking their way through hordes of monsters. Trouble is you don’t necessarily get to start it from the beginning, listen to the ‘quest text’ or truly explore (as the other players might be doing it for the tenth time). As a result, I’ve always gone back and done a play through of each quest end-to-end solo to make sure I experience the minimal story present in each one.
The approach has resulted in me hitting a higher level at the first breakpoint. It’s suggested that you would normally be level 14 at the end of Act 1. I’ve hit 17. This is undoubtedly because I’ve done a number of the quests, if not completely twice, at least a percentage of any particular quest two or three times. It seems to be working out for me though.
I am starting to a bit more conscious of the gear I am wearing. I didn’t overly bother before. If the game told me it was an improvement I put it on. Now I check it a bit. This was primarily driven by the fact I was getting the impression my damage output wasn’t up to scratch. Not sure how it all hangs together yet, but I am going to start looking into what stats I should have (I’m assuming +dex at this point) and how much damage output my weapons have. How I get gear is a bit strange. I seem to get the best gear from merchants, not drops in the game. Not sure how long this will continue. I’m also selling all my gear for money and do nothing fancy with it. I assume there is a crafting system in the game somewhere? As of yet, I don’t believe any of my gear have sockets or anything similar.
The story brings me to the strangest thing about Diablo 3 and how the narrative presents itself. I’ve discussed how games take different approaches revealing their story: as consequence or reward. This basically establishes whether the story is revealed as a natural consequence of playing (such as in the Mass Effect series) or whether it is revealed as a reward for playing (such as in the Final Fantasy series). I prefer the former, as the latter tends to separate game and narrative too much.
Diablo 3 sits in a strange place in that it is firmly in the story as reward camp, but the story seems to have nothing to do with your character. As is typical in the story as reward format you play through the game and then periodically you’re rewarded with cut scenes that take the story forward. The story they take forward is the story of Leah, the niece of Deckard Cain, who seems to have some secret powers and gets to interact with fallen angels (who you also see making portentous decisions in their heavenly abode). Your character is a bit like an NPC, along with a whole range of other NPCs that can join you in your adventures the only difference being you get to directly control the actions of yours. This approach could be best summed up as someone else’s story as reward.
It doesn’t ruin the game, it’s an action RPG at the end of the day, but it’s a bit of an odd construct. Are all Blizzard games like this? I suspect so. If you look at World of Warcraft the story is largely one of world characters with every player sort of being one of a mass of NPCs? Then you have the real-time strategy games which have your battles taking place within the context of the dramas of another range of world characters? It just seems to be the way things are done.
It’s probably a testament to the strength of games like the Mass Effect series that this now just seems slightly odd, while I suspect, once upon a time, it was just the accepted norm. It also strikes me as being the video game equivalent to role-playing games in the 90’s in which the player characters could often be seen to be side players in a much larger drama featuring various ‘important world characters’ that got revealed through supplements for the line.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 03/11/2013|
The Fourth EchelonKeywords: Video Games.
After slogging through The Last of Us for a third of the game before the good stuff kicked in it's refreshing to play through a game that just delivers from the start. Splinter Cell is a mature franchise and it knows what it needs to do: grand, melodramatic, high stakes cinematic espionage with super lethal spies that are masters of stealth.
Blacklist is a well-oiled machine. The single-player campaign kicks off almost in media res as The Engineers hit their first target on the Blacklist. The President assigns Fourth Echelon the task of tracking The Engineers down, they move into Paladin, their tricked out plane that acts as their operations centre, and the trail of arms dealers, analytics and signal intelligence has the team spanning the globe in their fight against the terrorist organisation. The structure of the game basically allows for intelligence of various sorts to hurtle the characters from one situation to another in a variety of locations.
You have a choice in terms of your style of play: Ghost, Panther or Assault. Ghost and Assault are opposites, consisting of not being seen and going in guns blazing. Panther represents the default Splinter Cell style of previous games involving the utilisation of stealth but not overly worrying about a clean exit by stealth killing when necessary. I tended to default to the Panther style but the missions occasionally throw up missions that require you to follow the other two (though this isn’t too brutal). The control system is fluid and natural and at all times makes you feel like the awesome action hero you are. It’s very clever.
Very exciting, very slick and it always makes you want to play more and punch on to the next mission-based situation.
In some form of minor miracle I even enjoyed the upgrade system. The system is based on acquiring cash which you get for doing the campaign missions, personal missions from your team (co-op ones for the most part) and probably partaking in Spies v Mercs (a great form of multiplayer if you have trusted people to play with). I liked it because it seemed to make the game cooler rather than pushing you into an impossible corner. I invested in all the stuff that made my Panther style more efficient, but the most useful seemed to be the two plane upgrades giving me a personal radar that indicated the facing of the enemy, etc. I never moved beyond the original guns given to me, though I did upgrade them a bit.
Blacklist does highlight one of the problems I have with modern game design. Blacklist takes a very modern approach to single, co-op and multiplayer by not putting them into silos. The rewards from one transfer to the other and they are all available from the same interface. It's all quite slick. The problem I have with it is the allocation of development resources. Only so much can be dedicated to the single-player campaign when there is two other areas to develop. Still, this approach isn't going to change anytime soon.
The structure of the game is interesting from a tabletop RPG perspective as it offers a distilled set-up similar to shows like Alias. It offers a model for a very structured RPG campaign that can operate on a very episodic, one-shot basis while not actually being a one-shot. The structure involves using a central location as an anchor and then using a mission-based structure. The central location provides a cool set as the default way to bring the characters together and provide a location for scenes should nothing else arise (it often might, but expediency means you want a cool one on hand). The mission-based structure basically sets up situations that need resolving, no doubt through cool video footage, intel and whatever else. The characters resolve that espionage situation utilising sound scene framing and gratuitous transitions. There may be a few hangover elements but the situation concludes. It would work quite well I think.
It’s a great game from a mature franchise. At times you just want to know what’s on the menu and know it’s done well. It’s not always about pushing the frontier.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 27/10/2013|
Blizzard…Welcome BackKeywords: Video Games.
Once upon a time there was a company called Blizzard. Everyone liked Blizzard because they released awesome, original and vastly entertaining console games. The company made its name with classics like The Lost Vikings and Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing on the Super Nintendo. I played them for ages. Then, when the Super Nintendo reached its natural end of life, Blizzard abandoned consoles and went to the PC. The Playstation kicked in nearly two decades of consoles without Blizzard.
That was 1997. Now its 2013 and they’ve retuned to the console market with Diablo III and it’s a case of welcome back as the game is a masterwork. I’ve currently got Alesha the Demon Hunter to level 10 and I’ve played a mixture of solo and group online play and the game is an exercise of zero barriers and delivers a feeling of continual awesome-ness, levelling, loot gathering and monster slaying.
The console version excludes stuff that is in the PC version, but it’s stuff I’m not going to miss. I don’t need a Battle.net account. No loss. Neither do I need to be online, albeit that’s not much of an issue. No real-money auction house to be hassled with and instead we get better and more personally tweaked loot drops. I prefer that to essentially spending my gaming time ‘shopping’ for stuff. I detest shopping in real life why would I want to do it in my gaming time? This is simplicity that’s a good thing.
I can see why a lot of people don’t like Diablo III as I suspect the character builds have been simplified. As a man who doesn’t like to get drawn too deeply into the character building game Diablo III seems to have made a very wise design choice. If I have it right they have removed the choice of what upgrades to invest in and instead purely made the choice one of which upgrade to apply? This is fantastic. I have no problem with trying out different skills from a menu and seeing which combinations work for how I want to play, but I hate it when I face levelling choices that decide what items on the menu are available to me. Brilliant. I can level away, accumulate skills never worrying about making a wrong choice, just whether I can combine them better. I particularly like how runes give you option to have your active and passive skills work different. I can also see how your choices would influence how you’d play. Very clever.
It makes the choices around the character build…fun.
This wise decision around the character build game also manifests in the control scheme. I really like it. I never seem to have problems hitting what I want to hit. The miss rate is negligible in the scheme of things. I love the ability to directionally dodge using the right stick, albeit this may be more pertinent to the Demon Hunter than melee based classes (we shall see). The control scheme combines with the character building because you can only have so many powers available on your controller at one time. This further defines how you want to play by which active skills you make available for use. Simple. Not too many choices. No great list of interface buttons. No idea how the PC does it but I like how the console does it.
Playing online has been an exercise in gratuitous simplicity and great reward. You choose how granular you want the matching to be (the same act or the same quest), what type of game you’re looking for (essentially PvE of PvP) and you press match. Each time a game has been quickly found with people within a couple of levels of me. Join. Teleport to your group mates. Kill monsters and complete quests. Playing the game multiplayer is definitely more fun. There are more monsters, all of which are more powerful. Powers go off in all direction and you can get a lot out of combos. As an example, the Witch Doctor seems to freeze enemies, which is great for my Demon Hunter. Online is easy to pop in and out off. I’ve had no aggressive players or idiots so far. The only problem with it is the narrative suffers as your group members may slam through the dialogue, etc, meaning you miss it. As a result, I’m finding on the first play through you’re best not out levelling the quest too much and still playing it solo to get the story (or with Friends who also want the story).
The other interesting wrinkle in online play is how loot works. At first I was concerned I was hovering up all the money and items, though I was also confused no one else was. As I played I noticed other characters did zoom off to odd locations as if picking stuff up. I started to wonder if I only saw my own drops? A quick check seems to suggest this is true. That is pure genius. You can hack and slash and hoover up all drops you can see because everyone else is getting their own personal allocation. Very clever. Removes all conflict. Period. It also allows items more related to your class to drop!
So far, the only negative that haunts the play experience is that there isn’t a group of three friends sitting down to play through the game as a group in a regular slot as that would be awesome.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 06/10/2013|
The Gaming Twilight?Keywords: Role-Playing Games; Life.
Indicators. Little signals that change is happening, no matter how temporary. The fact this blog gets updates less. The fact I’m putting what spare time I do have into video games. Yes, some of these things are products of being quite busy, not really having evenings to speak off (or not using them when I do), but they also indicate something else. Role-playing games entering a bit of a twilight phase.
I’m not fully sure why, though I can make a number of well-aimed guesses. I just know it’s not any sort of simple ‘summer funk’.
I seemed to hit some sort of gaming pinnacle with the 4E Campaign. Personally, for me, this was nothing to do with the system, as I prefer others. It was nothing to do with the length, as ideally I prefer shorter (the middle got a bit overly long). It was great that it was regular. I enjoyed the epic story. It wasn't about the game itself though, I also enjoyed the fact there was a more open, discursive atmosphere about what was happening at the table. It was more open, less obfuscated and more up front and clear. It put us in a good place from an already sound position. It just seemed to emerge around the start of the 4E period.
Then I suffered some annoying career disruption and wanted to dedicate my time to resolving that (and I tend to slash costs as well) so I was out of the gaming group for a year. I was also doing the MBA. I re-joined for the Smallville campaign which was great, similar as before. The vibe at the table, changes in myself post-MBA (and a few other things) meant I wanted to GM.
In short, gaming seemed to be in a fantastic place. It’s felt like a pinnacle followed by a crash for me. So what’s changed?
I know part of it is the fact, at some point I can’t remember, the gaming seems to have become isolated to the session alone. It seems to have become very transactional. You turn up. You play. You go home. It has little impact or relevance beyond that. I’m also used to it being about other things than the session alone. I’ve written an article recently as part of another potential project and it’s reminded me I’ve been the most involved in gaming when it has transitioned outside of the session. It’s about something more than just playing. I’m not suggesting I want to go back to the heady days of being with a group of friends playing role-playing games, discussing games, hosting video game nights and going to conventions but a complete vacuum does have a multiplying effect and that effect isn’t positive.
I’ll also admit gaming isn’t a casual pastime for me. It’s not about doing the same things repeatedly. I expect it to be engaging and challenging, about ‘doing the craft better’ for want of a better description. I actually see it as something that improves me personally. This reflects my life generally, when something is the same and not challenging in some, even small way, I move on.
4E was different as it involved playing a different type of game using different tools and telling a story with the same characters framed through different lenses across three tiers of heroism. That was unique. In a similar way Smallville was great mostly because it involved playing a totally different character than I’d not normally play and I happen to think I pulled a blinder (if I do say so myself). It also made the game about shifting character relationships, which I think all games should be a about (whether it being with other characters, ideas, etc). I don’t expect people to deliver that to me, but something in the mosaic of things that goes into the game usually rustle it up or allows me to generate it sufficiently and find it myself.
Since the cancellation of Fate Fading Suns that engagement and mild intellectual challenge from gaming has gone. Nothing wrong with the games were playing but I do seem to be getting less from them. In a way this parallels my experiences in other media. I prefer a more directed approach, within reason, than a sandbox approach. I prefer an experience rather than me being able to bum about doing anything I want. I’m not suggesting cast iron rails, but there is something in between that involves the GM taking the players steer (however that is represented) and adding something to it and moulding something out of it. Hard to explain.
Those are two concrete things I know that are missing that seriously induce a gaming malaise, but two other exist that are a bit more speculative.
I’m wondering whether my need for something novel and personally challenging to exist in the game is getting diminishing returns as a player? Possible. At the moment I have trouble envisioning where that would come from. Two reasons. First, I’m not sure I have any personal barriers to get over on this front post-Smallville. I don’t normally play the gregarious, ego the size of a house character stringing podium speeches and world spanning TV addresses on the fly? Arguing philosophical points of view on a TV debate? I’d never normally do that. I did. It felt natural. It was awesome. QED. It’s not that I won’t enjoy playing characters anymore, I just don’t believe there is a frontier as such. Second, I know what systems I like that might provide that challenge and that interest and I honestly don’t think I’m going to get to play them in any meaningful way due to group dynamics.
This would be pretty depressing if it wasn’t for the fact I do see whole new frontiers of challenge and different skills being developed from the hobby: running games. I found running Fading Suns, absorbing, fun, challenging, tiring in a great way and it was pretty damned awesome from my point of view until the final session with its transition to Act 2 blip. I realise that’s my personal point of view, but it’s a good thing. There is lots of things I want to do. Lots of things I want to do better in the whole role, playing and game area. The hunger I used to have for playing has, to some degree, shifted to the hunger for running games. That’s because the challenge and new horizons have shifted to this space. It is where I am going to get the most from it. True, there is challenges in that in terms of time and stuff, but the fact remains.
There is also something going on in the dynamic of the group as well I think. Not sure what it is. Not sure even if it is a ‘thing’ as such. It just a combination of factors. The transactional nature of the Sunday sessions. The growing interest in miniature games of varying sorts. The new, more regular weekday gaming slots with different groups. All fantastic and something I certainly appreciate as someone who likes to consume multiple, inter-related sources of entertainment and media and have lots of such stuff 'going on', etc. There is even a small part of me, post Fate Fading Suns cancellation that thinks, in some small way, the groups’ differences in what they want out of the hobby are a bit further apart. Is it possible to go as far to say the personal investment has also dropped? Possibly. No idea. I am in no way saying I know the reasons or even if I’m entirely sure I'm not imagining it…it just feels different.
All of which undoubtedly impacts the Sunday slot in some way that can probably never be defined due to how the complex variables of head space, time and reward sort of mould together.
It would seem, without really considering it much until now, that I’ve almost unconsciously made my own series of decisions regarding were my head space, time and rewards are best spent or found and as the indicators have shown it seems to involve writing less here (even when the topics are not about gaming, gaming is some sort of engine), playing more video games and thinking about role-playing games substantially less. The less inputs and less outputs kicks in the cycle turns.
Strange or changing times. It will lead somewhere, just no idea where.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 04/10/2013|
We All Find Something To Live ForKeywords: Video Games.
Too anyone who has a passing familiarity with my Facebook and Twitter Feed it’s been obvious that I was finding The Last of Us a trial rather than fun. It's a combination of not really engaging with the first third of the narrative and finding the game very repetitive. The infected (a.k.a zombies) weren't scary, just pieces in overly familiar set-piece puzzles. The world wasn't so much interesting as a sequence of derelict buildings and streets.
That was the first third, luckily the game started to improve once the infected are left behind and the game becomes more about human beings. This happens once you've arrived in Pittsburgh.
Warning: The following contains major spoilers.
One of the first things I did, which coincided with the improvement, was turn the difficulty down. I forget the exact settings but it was effectively normal to easy. My distaste for survivalist horror drove me to it. I avoid playing games in the genre because of the 'you used two too many bullets today so now you are screwed factor'. In The Last of Us everything runs out and breaks, so even sharp sticks, baseball bats and crowbars are subject to this problem. The Last of Us doesn't use that construct to the point you face a dead end but it can get very irritating. Taking it to easy set a number dials, the most useful one being more abundant materials littered around the landscape. It just made the resource scarcity a non-issues so I could enjoy other things.
It’s not surprising the game improved once the experience shifted from a zombie focus to a human focus. The whole genre is focused on the survival of humanity and what we do in extreme circumstances. It also means the game element is more interesting as you get into more engaging action scenes rather than the similar puzzles represented by the infected.
I didn't feel the narrative of The Last of Us kicked in until Pittsburgh. When it kicks in it is quite cleverly done. A number of approaches make it quite unique. It has cut scenes but it less about the narrative being completely told in cut scenes and also about the conversations and actual actions Ellie performs in the actual game. Ellie seems to become more of a partner after the journey to Pittsburgh. She helps out when things blind side you (never figured out of this was a stage in the game or a difficulty setting thing). As time goes on she gets a gun and she actually shoots things. Joel and Ellie truly become partners and it’s great. It also helps that the story is told over a long period of time and the seasons change as Joel and Ellie’s journey moves on.
This partnership is the core of the story. The fact Ellie holds the potential cure to make all humanity immune to the spores is purely a construct to explore this relationship: a quest to act as a crucible. This is the strength of the story. There is no bosses. There is not Big Bad. There is just survival and choices. It’s what makes it a more nuanced and mature story than what features in most games. It’s about what people are willing to do to survive or to deal with what they’ve become. Ultimately, the events and choices Ellie makes over the course of their epic journey make her ready to die. She is prepared to sacrifice herself to save humanity. It’s the answer she finds. It is a testament to the game that this feels natural and believable. Despite this Joel chooses to save her, because he needs her. In the process it means he has to take Ellie’s choice away from her. He stops the operations.
The game ends with Joel and Ellie on a ridge, overlooking the one place they felt they could have been happy, and Joel has to lie to Ellie assuring her she was not the only hope and other immune people existed. He lied for her and to keep her with him. In part he was thinking about himself at the expense of the human race.
You believe the journey Joel and Ellie went on. You feel how the world they live in has moulded their choices. The dramatic scenes in the game, in the second half, are extraordinary in their ‘acting’ and the quality of the script. The events in the game powerful, with Ellie saving Joel with her first killing of a human being. The fact Ellie nurses and survives on her own when she’s forced to nurse Joel back to health. It’s fraught, endearing and enthralling once this stronger narrative kicks in.
Overall, It’s was poignant, complex and powerful stuff.
Is it the masterpiece many people suggested? I don’t think so. It’s certainly true, that when it finally gets moving, the story is delivered, executed and told in a way that has a subtlety and maturity not normally seen in a video game. The trouble is takes a while to actually feel like anything special. You also have to remember the experience is also meant to be a game and for a good long while that game is banal beyond belief. I could well understand people not getting through the first third. It isn’t scary. It’s repetitive and annoying. It’s a good game. Possibly very good. It could have been an absolute masterpiece if it had managed to be more even over the whole experience.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 28/09/2013|
What Realities Will You Accept?Keywords: Role-Playing Games.
A number of weeks back, I changed up what I was listening to during my various travels from Radio 4 to some gaming podcasts. While the majority of these discussed old topics with traditional solutions that anyone of any experience has solved the world over, one of them did discuss something interesting.
The degree to which you’ll accept certain realities of a milieu?
What was interesting about it is I’m very accommodating in this area. In that I don’t expect the ‘setting surround’ of my fiction to be realistic, just internally consistent…enough. This means fiction can get away with a heck of a lot when it comes to me, especially if the ‘setting surround’ throws a nod to consistency and uses its constructs to drive good story, drama and character relationships. The setting can even start to break apart at the seams if the story and drama are good (and while I realise for some the whole setting thing is intimately part of that, it isn’t for me).
This is why I can really like shows like Lost. First, I don’t care about the ‘mystery being solved and concluded’ I’m happy that it sets up a journey that changes the characters the mystery behind the island could have been left ‘unsolved’. I like the journey, conclusions are often less important in certain setups. Second, it means the shifting nature of the show as a crucible to tell character studies and relationships with flashbacks and flashforwards and actual time travel was all good.
This also means I’m perfectly willing to accept ‘unrealistic limits’ and anachronisms. In fact, I’d rather revel in them then try and make something more ‘realistic’. The perfect example of this is a lot of classic Cyberpunk, at least as it’s served up in role-playing games. The ideas in a lot of these tales are now anachronistic and, in some cases, have gone from prophetic to oddly quaint.
This brings me back to the question, let’s run with the classic Cyberpunk elements of off the 80’s. Would you be willing to revel in the setting as is, with all its ideas and genre conventions or would you find yourself rebelling against the fact it now feels old, out of date and just ‘not right’? I’d revel in it, because I’d not see it as a fictional setting that no longer seemed relevant, but more as a sort of period piece which as a result of being such a thing had the mores, ideas and technology of the time. It would be fantastic. Better for it. It’s just a period that never actually happened, though the fictional period did.
Not everyone would be the same, some would find playing in that setting ludicrous and they’d feel the need to ‘fix it’. If you tried to update it would lose something, for me. The problem is, of course, at least in gaming terms, when you have a group that is split across these lines.
You can ask the same question about types of science fiction, space opera or superhero stuff? Anything that relies on acceptance of its own ‘setting surround’ that is in some way disconnected from the now, the then or the future it predicted or its very existence hangs on accepting a range of conventions that just are.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 02/08/2013|
GM Burst Baby! Burst!Keywords: Role-Playing Games; RPG Theory.
After the cancellation of Fate Fading Suns and some discussion of the types of ‘campaigns’ the group falls into and some of the practical problems that come out of that I’ve reached some conclusions about what this means for me running more games.
Initially, there are two important things to note.
First, I like the big production, widescreen sort of stuff. Even if I do something relatively ‘subtle’, it will be subtle in the sense Game of Thrones is subtle. In short, it’s still big sets and by and large big stuff, big emotions it just doesn’t have things exploding. The chances are though, I’ll go with some ‘explosions’. This does tend to mean I will sit a bit more towards heavier GM framing rather than delivering less and just riffing of the players (albeit the player awesome changes things significantly, it’s more about my belief that should be from a base, not a vacuum). In short, I expect to do a bit of work (and don't mistake that for traditional, heavy prep) and delivering that is what makes it fun for me.
Second, I am undoubtedly a burst GM. This has always been the case. I suspect this is related to the first issue. I’ll have a burst of creativity run it through then I’ll need a break to come back at it. It involves re-grouping, re-engaging the imagination by doing something else for a bit, etc. Loving the material again through a different lens and in a different shape. I could sit back and let players fill the vacuum I’m momentarily leaving, but this never feels as successful to me. It does not have to be a long break, but a break nevertheless.
Historically, this hasn’t been a problem as previous groups have either coped with gaps better (due gaming being high in the conversation even during gaps), been willing to play board games during the gaps or had other games to slot in during each games ebb and flow (we’d often be playing multiple ones at once). The current group does neither of these things well so it’s not ‘burst friendly’. While I don’t believe it was the main reason for Fate Fading Suns cancellation (as I got my break due to shitty scheduling) it did get cancelled at the end of one burst and just as I was ready for the next (also at the risk point in terms of length for the group).
But what is the outcome of these observations?
First, step away from being the GM who runs the long game. It will never work unless my need to burst, pause and burst can be accommodated. At the moment it can’t. You also have to throw in the systems I like tend to only be a success if the GM gets out while the going was good and before someone calls it. I don't agree that has to be true but evidence and conversations seem to make this true. This means no multiple season games. No long games that go over the usual single stretch cap of 6 – 12 sessions, often hanging around eight.
So, conclusion one is to accept that I should position games to fit with that natural length the group seems to have before danger sets in (some transition beyond it, some don’t). That’s not that bad. I can live with that but for the fact I need to control the fact my games tend to explode out (which I like as it is often ‘player-driven explosion') before I can pull them back in. Focus will have to be the key.
The other outcome involves thinking about different structures that the group doesn’t normally consider.
What about the highly structured game that does not have to be ran regularly but still has some payback? It swaps structure for regularity. Fate is supposed to be good for these things? No? I suppose it would be like running one shots every so often but with the same characters? The best example I can think of for this, as I’m intimately familiar with it, would be cinematic action / espionage sort of stuff. Each time it is ran there is a problem and a mission to solve it. The structure could even be similar with a briefing from Control, etc. After a session a mission report with a set format could be compiled. Alias ran like this for some time with minor variations. I am sure similar crucibles exist. Let Fate aspects deal with the rest to bring character issues front and centre quickly. The punctuated nature of its run schedule would also de-prioritise the player need for character ‘power growth’ and potentially increase the focus on dramatic, character change.
An extension of this would be the Star Wars approach: a series of movies. This would be different as each time it was run it would be 2-3 sessions in length. Fate Fading Suns was a bit like this, but in this case the serialised elements would be reduced to a Star Wars, macro-level deal. Okay, it’d be less of a run it in the gaps game. It would need more scheduling. At the same time it would mean when it was run it would only interrupt any other game for 2-3 sessions. Going back to the burst thing each one would be a mini-burst!
The third option is true, convention-style one-shots which I’ve always been against. Oddly I’m coming around to them, even the idea of pre-generated characters. I’d not want this to be the be all and end all of my gaming, but possibly some ideas are just best done this way. As long as the experiencing is exciting and everyone enjoys it what does it really matter? It does have the advantage it shifts some of the intellectual enjoyment to a singular activity than a group activity.
Personally, I would like to break the back of campaigns being measured in sessions and instead try and bring about a culture that is more flexible in terms of the temporal characteristics of the campaigns. Why does a game have to run contiguously in terms of time with any other games picking up the slack only in the advent of disaster? Why can’t one run for six sessions, then another for three, a third for two only to come back to the first? It’s not something that’s proven easy but it would allow more diversity and may work better if the games are accepting of such structures (rather than them being serialised entities with unplanned breaks). We may also have to accept games which are slightly more accommodating of players being missing.
A long-shot, but you never know. The main problem at the minute is carving time out of very busy work schedule.
|Permalink | Comments(0) | Posted by: Ian O'Rourke on 20/07/2013|