Civilization: Beyond Earth comes out this Friday, and it looks rather nice. As a marked improvement over previous games in the series, it is set in space. In fact, the group of colonists you set off with at its beginning are meant to loosely represent fresh victors from Civilization 5, having conquered the greatest scientific feats Earth can sustain after plastering it with shopping malls and fancy schools.
For old time’s sake, I made a random game at emperor level and tried my damnedest to build a big silly spaceship.
First-person narrative-heavy exploration games are usually blunt instruments, and that’s okay. Fans remember Myst as a fantastic world full of secrets–not a game crammed full of infuriating puzzles that most of us needed strategy guides to solve. What counts is the feeling of freedom against the unknown. When this hazy genre convinces players that an uneasy truce exists between their actions and a narrative, exploration feels real because it is.
With a few heavy-handed exceptions, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter treads this line perfectly.
Action points and character powers are out. Attribute based saves and a Vancian magic system are in. Some see this as rewinding the clock on Dungeons and Dragons, largely undoing the changes made by fourth edition.
But the more I parse the player’s handbook, the less I agree with that interpretation. Beneath its mechanics, this edition feels more primeval. It hints at a heritage many gamers my age never experienced–one more wonderful and dangerous than I can really explain. I haven’t been this excited for the game in over a decade.
With Dragon Age: Inquisition coming out
October 7 November 18 (and me never having played Awakening, the first game’s expansion) I wanted to get a fresh save file, start to finish, with choices that fit my personal canon. (ed: Another change…save files won’t be importable, but you will be able to choose what protagonists did in the first two games through some sort of website. Glad I went through the trouble. Woo.) The experience went much as I’d thought it might.
Any given system–be it the human body, a community, or a game–is composed of individual self-organizing units, or subsystems. Organs make up bodies, people form communities, and sets of reactions compose game mechanics. Each subsystem can likely be broken down yet again into smaller systems of their own.
This relationship seems fairly straightforward until we watch how humans treat systems. “Housing prices are going up, so I’d better invest in the real estate market.” “That celebrity looks great and endorses this diet, so that must be her secret.” “Every good pro uses one particular strategy, so Starcraft must be broken.”
In a continuing tradition of enjoying free, old-yet-great videos on the internet, this keynote from GDC 2010 is a great overview of how players react to different design approaches. This is mostly explored in broad terms, but Meier gives examples from his experience.
The main takeaway may be that players given options often don’t make fun choices, even when they are trying to have fun. This isn’t a new idea, but many developers struggle with it. The clearest current example is probably Diablo 3 removing its auction house. The clearest path to victory isn’t always the most entertaining.
In a TED talk, Romero (who has changed her name since the 2012 presentation) discusses how she realized games can teach us about the empathic experiences games can provide. This is mostly a very condensed version of a GDC panel from 2010 in which she discusses how she first began making board games.
While these aren’t anywhere near traditional games, Romero touches upon some of the problems and advantages of games over other art forms, especially in their ability to evoke emotion.
Game reviews are more or less informative, straightforward affairs. Pithy observation, narrative summary, 4/5 stars. Some people do this better than others. Some people say 4 is not the right number of stars. Some people don’t like stars.
Games criticism, a distinctly different topic meant to be concerned with how games work instead of just whether they do, is a tangled, complicated, scary catastrophe. No one agrees on who does it well. Its dark secrets are hidden either inside some of Amazon’s spookier publishing crevices or on blogs that don’t have URLs so much as ritualized handshakes. There are many good theories on how to make individual games, but judging finished games in critical terms seems paradoxically more difficult. How do you examine an art form that is 30 years old, has changed drastically in that time, yet whose first trembling steps remain culturally and critically relevant? How do you create a theory that describes the important elements of both Monkey Island and Amnesia? How about Passage? How do you consolidate huge differences in genre and style, then discuss where the art is heading?
This article from The New Yorker casts games as a means to escape, but not in the usual, pejorative sense. From the trouble they have getting new Western releases to the eerie relevance digital weapons have to their lives, it’s difficult to imagine. It’s also a chilling reminder that the game one person berates in Youtube comments is the same game helping to keep another human together, half a world away, every day.