Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Lovely


I hate DLC for all the standard reasons (inflated price, low value, focus on powergaming and fanservice). Actually, "hate" is probably a strong word for something that's easily ignored, which is exactly what I tend to do with DLC. If it comes with a preorder or something, that's fine. But I'm not going to spend extra money to supersize my gaming experience.

However, I made an exception for Leliana's Song for Dragon Age: Origins. Because it has a story and was generally well received, I've been somewhat interested in playing this DLC since it came out - just not interested enough to shell out the $7. I always knew I would pick it up at some point, though. Since it's set in Denerim at night, I wanted to see if there were some areas I could filch repurpose for minor locations in my Rotted Rose mod project.

I started up the game last night and, after being treated to some flashy cutscenes, immediately encountered a serious bug. The titular character - the one you play in the game - is a no-show. She doesn't appear in cutscenes, and her in-game character is represented by the bald girl above instead of the Leliana we came to know (and possibly love) from Origins. Modders will recognize the bald chick as the default appearance for female character models, which usually only appears when something has gone terribly wrong.

Here's the male counterpart. Creepy, eh?
A search of the Bioware forums yielded recommendations to "disable all mods" and "reinstall the DLC and/or the game itself." In other words, the default advice that's given when no one really knows what the problem is.

It's sad that mods are the first suspects anytime anything goes wrong. Sad, but also sadly understandable. Modders come with the full range of skills, from newbie to professional-level, and the quality of the mods follow accordingly. Besides, when you're working on something from the outside - something that is, in places, hanging in delicate balance to begin with - the potential for unforeseeable bugs and conflicts is high. In fact, I have to wonder if this is part of the reason game companies are sometimes reluctant to provide toolsets (Dragon Age 2 didn't include a toolset on release, and neither will The Witcher 2). They complicate things for customer support.

That said, I'm a lot more sympathetic to game companies when they actually try to solve the problem, rather than just pointing fingers. In this particular case, a number of players who've encountered this bug have reported having no mods installed in the first place, yet the problem persists. Others have gone through the rigmarole of removing mods and reinstalling, to no avail (although it seems to work for some). The DLC has been out for over six months, and the last thread reporting this problem was less than a month ago.

As for me, I have only a few standalone mods installed, and I can't really imagine how they would affect a standalone DLC. Given the lack of success other people have had in fixing this problem, I don't think I'll bother with any of the recommended steps. Instead, I think I'll just go back to ignoring DLC.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Mysteries of Westgate: A (not so) brief look back


When you blog two or three times a week, eventually you get around to talking about everything. Given the number of topics I've run through already, it's almost miraculous that I haven't devoted a few words to Mysteries of Westgate, the one commercial game that I've worked on (that actually got released). With the two-year anniversary of the game's release coming up, now seems like a good time.

The game itself is old now, and my involvement in the project is much older. That's because I was there from the start of the long process leading up to release, a process that was made much longer by a publishing snafu by Atari. Little did I know when I started working on MoW back in 2006 that the ultimate mystery would be "when the @*&$! is this thing going to be released?" I mean, I can remember being in somewhat of a rush to finish my quest designs before my daughter was born. Now she's almost old enough to play MoW (slight exaggeration - she's 4 1/2).

Because of the frustrating delay, I never really felt like I got closure on the project. There was never a right time for a post-mortem, as MoW just sort of lingered in a unnatural state, like the undead who were the subject of its story. And while I accept the criticisms of the game when it did come out, I also never really felt like MoW got its proper due.

But I'm not here to make excuses. I just want to jot down what I remember about the project. My fellow Ossianite Tiberius has already weighed in with his perspective, and lead designer Alazander also posted an admirably honest retrospective on his blog. Now it's my turn.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Ahhh yeah, let The Witcher 2 make it all better


I'm sorry Dragon Age 2 hurt you. It broke your heart and made a mockery of the preorder you shared. But you can forget about all that now. I'm here - or at least I will be in a few weeks. The Witcher 2 will show you what it means to roleplay again.

Yes, I come with some baggage of my own. If you play me, you're going to have to use a pregen character just like in Dragon Age 2, and yeah, I don't even offer the option to play a female PC. But it's a good pregen character. Besides, at least I'm upfront about it. I didn't wait until the sequel to spring this on you. You always knew it was part of the deal.

OK, I admit I added a dialogue wheel. I know how that offends your old-school sensibilities, and I'm sorry. But I did it for you! Did you really want to spend the whole game listening to Geralt speak the exact same line you just selected? Besides, all the single-player RPGs are doing it these days. You want me to look my best, don't you?

Did I mention that I'm PC-only? My interface and gameplay haven't been dumbed down to appeal to console players. When you're playing me, you never have to worry about whether I'm thinking about someone else.

I know it's going to take some time for you to heal, but c'mon baby, you can trust me. I had a good upbringing. I wasn't developed in two years (I'm not trying to say "I told you so," but that was a sure warning sign). I may not have the same pedigree, but the CD Projekt RED family is tight-knit. As an only child, I'm secure with my place in the world, instead of being all wrapped up in sibling rivalry. You won't catch me trying to emulate a popular space opera just to increase sales. There, I said it.

Hey, I know you like me. I heard you've been saying nice things about me on Internet forums and in the gaming press. It's OK to let go. Dragon Age 2 is gone now - its repetitive combat and recycled areas are behind you. It's time to open your hard drive to a new RPG. One that won't let you down.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Game of Thrones: Expectations met (so far)

Is Game of Thrones yet another HBO slam dunk? It sure looks like it to me.

HBO has gotten really good at churning out superior television series by attracting great actors, dealing with mature content not suitable for regular TV, and lavishing high production values over the whole affair. It's too early to pass judgment on the new Game of Thrones series, but the first episode met my (wholly unreasonable) expectations.

Of course, so much of the first episode was obligatory that it's hard to know how much credit to give to the creators. If you've read the books, you knew exactly what scenes they would have to include to introduce the myriad characters and set the various plots in motion. If I were capable of stepping back and judging it through the eyes of an uninitiated viewer, I might say that the first episode teetered on the edge of being convoluted. However, as a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, I'm thrilled that they don't seem to be cutting anything important.

Die-hard fans have no doubt been talking about the casting of the series for months now, but with so many of the actors being newcomers, it's only now possible to get a better read. I have few complaints. As expected, Sean Bean (Ned Stark), Peter Dinklage (Tyrion), and Lena Headley (Cersei) were all well-suited to their roles. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is promising as Jaime, though his hair style seems a bit anachronistic. I'm not as thrilled with Emilia Clarke, the actress who playing Daenerys, but she didn't have much to do in the first episode other than look pretty (which she did well enough).

How anachronistic?
This anachronistic.
Nitpicks aside, this thing looks like it's going to be big. HBO certainly seems to think so. I didn't realize how many HBO spinoffs there were until I saw Game of Thrones playing simultaneously on five or six channels last night.

Two minor caveats. One, this was a pilot used to sell the series to HBO, and the quality of a series often changes between the pilot and the second episode (usually for the better, but not always). And two, due to the sheer number of characters in the story, some of the major ones got hardly any screen time in the first episode, so it remains to be seen how well the actors in those roles will handle the parts.

Still, if you're a fan of George RR Martin's novels, or fantasy in general, I think you have to be happy. The only person who might not be happy right now is Martin himself. He's about to get more fans, and that means more pressure to finish the damn books.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rotted Report 08: Watch your mouth!


My last report ended on a cliffhanger, with me wondering whether I should substantially change my mod to avoid comparisons to Dragon Age 2 plots and themes. Fortunately, I think I've hit on a way forward that requires no more work than the rewrites I was already planning. In fact, I'm now slowly making my way through the revisions - creeping along with an hour here, an hour there - and the more I do, the more I come to believe I've chosen the right course.

Since I'm back on writing, it seems like a good time to talk about something I've been meaning to discuss for a long time - the dialogue. If you've followed the blog for awhile, you might remember that I did a series of posts on dialogue trees. Now I'm going to tell you how I'm putting those opinions into practice.

Specifically, let's talk about how The Rotted Rose will track what you say.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Game of Thrones and the Martin-ization of RPGs

Game of Thrones premieres on HBO this Sunday, and if you're like me, you have wholly unreasonable expectations for it. In case you don't know what all the fuss is about, this isn't just another medieval drama on premium cable to compete with The Borgias and Camelot. The new HBO series is based on George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels, which are held up by many as a modern day Lord of the Rings.

Last week's New Yorker went topical with a full-length feature story on Martin called Just Write It! - a title that captures the feelings of his jonesing fans, who have been waiting for over five years for his next book. After reading the article, I'm not too optimistic about getting that sweet, sweet closure that can only come with the completion of the series. This bit leaves the impression that Martin is utterly psyched out:
"I don’t want to come across as a whiner or a complainer," Martin said, as tinted light from the afternoon sun filtered through the stained-glass windows. "No! I’m living the dream here. I have all of these readers who are waiting on the book. I want to give them something terrific." There was a pause. "What if I fuck it up at the end? What if I do a ‘Lost’? Then they’ll come after me with pitchforks and torches."
At least the fans have the new HBO series to focus their attention on now. Behind those stained-glass windows, Martin is probably cackling maniacally with the knowledge that someone else has willingly accepted the curse of high expectations.

He's suppressing a cackle in this picture. You can tell.
Of course, the series will ultimately only generate more interest in the books. By the time the last episode airs, the latest release date for Martin's next book, A Dance with Dragons, will be just around the corner, and...

Regardless of whether Martin ever finishes the series, the impact of the existing books is undeniable - and that impact can be felt in RPGs. Once strongly identified with Tolkienesque high fantasy, RPGs seem to have moved rapidly toward the gritty and gray low fantasy of Martin. Neverwinter Nights 2 and the Dragon Age games - with their focus on knights, blights, and political fights - certainly come to mind. However, even RPGs that aren't so narrative-driven seem to be going darker and more realistic. 

Martin isn't responsible for all that. The larger trend here is that there are more adults playing videogames these days, and those adults want adult content. There's also the fact that The Forgotten Realms are, thanks to a legal dispute, starting to live up to their name. Neverwinter Nights 2 notwithstanding, the Realms has always been the dominant high fantasy setting in Western RPGs - without it, the landscape looks a lot different.

You could also make the case that game development realities play a part. It is without a doubt harder to create a high fantasy setting because you can't lean as much on the real world as a model. High fantasy makes sense for games that are based on an existing IP like the Realms, or for MMOs that need something unique to set themselves apart. For everyone else, a Martin-esque approach is appealing. 

Anyway, I'm rambling. Is it Sunday yet? Because I'm jonesing for a little Song of Ice and Fire, in whatever form I can get it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

6 mortifying moments that make you wonder about RPG developers

As a genre, RPGs aren't especially controversial. A Huffington Post article from last year rating the top 15 most controversial videogames included exactly one RPG - Mass Effect - and basically acknowledged that the kerfuffle over it was sheer nonsense.

Maybe it's the genre's origins in tabletop Dungeons and Dragons, an all-ages game that at one time got plenty of attention from anti-satanic church ladies while doing nothing to deserve it. Or it could be that RPGs almost always feature fantasy or sci-fit settings with non-human enemies, which - in contrast to shooters - makes it hard to relate the violence to real-life. Or maybe RPGs are just better at hiding the naughty stuff, what with their longer play times and loads of optional, nonlinear content.

Here's one thing we can rule out: It's not because RPG developers are more high-minded than their counterparts. If you think otherwise, just take a look at the following list of tasteless moments from RPGs. I won't claim that these are the most controversial things out there, as I haven't played every RPG (if you know of better examples, please share). And actually, they're all quite harmless as far as I'm concerned. However, they certainly make you wonder what these people would be doing if they weren't making games.

Naturally, this list doesn't include things like obscure Japanese RPGs, or user-created mods. If it did, it would probably set a record for longest list on the Internet.

Friday, April 8, 2011

How Dragon Age is like... Insidious?

If you're looking for a horror movie to see this weekend, you could do worse than Insidious. I saw it last weekend and walked away impressed, not to mention a little shaken. It's sitting at 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is very solid given the anti-horror bias among professional critics (by comparison, 61% for a costume drama would indicate complete suckitude).

The thing that seems to divide positive and negative reviews is the point in the movie where it starts to explain the strange happenings of the first act using some pretty convoluted parapsychology mumbo-jumbo. Admittedly, the explanations are pretty goofy, and if someone in real life started telling me this stuff, I would be backing away slowly. But c'mon, this is a horror movie. If you can't deal with outlandish revelations, you're probably just not a fan of the genre.

I am a fan of the genre, obviously, but I also have personal reasons that made it easy for me to suspend disbelief. One, I used to be into parapsychology when I was 13, and while I now know that all those books I read were junk science, it's still easy for me to slip back into "believer" mode for 90 minutes or so. And two, as a fantasy fan, I'm interested in fictional models of supernatural powers and phenomenon. In other words, the very thing that turned a lot of critics off was a positive for me.

And now I'm finally going to climb back on topic to discuss an interesting parallel between Insidious and the world of Dragon Age. But unfortunately, I have to get into some Insidious spoilers to do it. I won't reveal much more than you can find by reading reviews, but for many people, that's still too much. So if you're thinking about seeing the movie, you are excused.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

An alternative to reloading

Failure is not an option.

That's not just a cheesy line from a 1980s action movie, or the title of a self-help book that has become required reading at your workplace. It's an unwritten commandment in virtually every single videogame that's ever been made. The rule is simple: You cannot continue until you've beaten the previous level. This, in essence, is why we're stuck with reloading - which, as I mentioned in my last post, tends to diminish a game's storyline.

For most games, it's hard to imagine things any other way. How exactly would you structure a platformer that allowed you to blunder your way through levels? The whole point of most games is to be successful while improving your skills... so you can be even more successful while improving your skills even more... and so on. If you no longer require success, you no longer have a game.

But this is one of those cases where RPGs are special - in theory, if not in practice. In an RPG, the game is at least partly about crafting your own character and story, and that often includes subjective decisions that have nothing to do with winning the game. For example, the choice of gender, appearance, race, and personality are largely cosmetic, but those customization options are often highly valued by players.

I want my Shepard to have a bad mustache, and damn you if you try and stop me!
What I'm getting at is, failure could be an option in RPGs. Winning or losing a key battle could represent a branch in the storyline, and if done well, the preferred path wouldn't necessarily be as obvious as it might seem. Sometimes failure, at least in the short term, makes for a more interesting story. Sometimes it could even allow for more satisfying gameplay.

OK, forget sometimes. Let's talk about Crossroad Keep. Unless, of course, you're scared of musty old Neverwinter Nights 2 spoilers.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Saving the game, ruining the story

Thanks to the miracle of GOG, I've been catching up on some older games I never got around to playing for whatever reason. For the past couple of days, I've been trying my hand at Gothic 2, a sandbox RPG from German developer Piranha Bytes that came out back in 2002. I have two major complaints so far:
  1. The unusual control scheme requires both hands most of the time, making it more difficult for me to enjoy a beer while playing (are we sure this is a German game?).
  2. I die a lot. I mean, a really lot. Your character starts out as a weakling, a fact that NPCs seem to point out at every opportunity - often before, during, and/or after an ass-whipping.
I don't mind starting off weak. In fact, I'm anticipating a sense of satisfaction when my character finally turns the corner and can actually win a fight without hiding behind a city guard. I don't subscribe to the idea that everything the PC does must be heroic, and find it rather pathetic when games feel the need to stroke the player's ego. I've actually had a few chuckles over the utter lack of respect your character receives at the start of Gothic 2. It's a refreshing change.

No, the thing that I don't like is reloading.