Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sulk: Squad Games

You have read many posts in which I dissect games, extract what makes them good, distill what makes them bad. I have made reference to common principles, familiar gaming history, and the Eternal Verities of Aristotle.

(It is not widely known that The Frogs was originally designed as a first-person shooter. It was adapted for the Greek stage only after vigorous debate by leading citizens, who insisted that violent games would corrupt the youth of Athens, and also that guns hadn't been invented yet.)

Anyway, this post is different. This is the post in which I insist that some games are bad because I Don't Like Them Dammit. And That's All That Matters.

I bring you this enlightened and irrefutable opinion after looking at my favorite casual-game linkfarm and seeing a Flash RPG of which it is said:

The first time you enter battle, make sure you drag your team members to appropriate positions.

Right. Team members. Coordinating team members. How about I go read blogs instead? Or cut my fingernails? Or watch my fingernails grow so that I can cut them someday?

Here's my problem with multi-character games: I have to pay attention to all the characters. If I don't, some of them get slaughtered and then I'm not playing the game well.

No, wait, let me tell it with math. In a game with one character, I decide what to do and then stuff happens. That's fun. In a game with N characters, I decide what to do N times, and then something finally happens. That's fun but it's more work and it takes longer. How do I maximize the amount of fun for the amount of effort? By setting N equal to 1, that's how.

(Smartarses will now ask me about N=0. The answer is, yes, I do enjoy a movie now and again. I also read a lot of books. Now we're going to talk about games again.)

I did a lot of this kind of squad organization when I was a kid. Wizardry, Ultima (3 and up), Bard's Tale... I also drew square-by-square maps in colored pencil. I did these things because I had no money and had already read everything decent in the library. Time is shorter these days, and we've invented something called "casual gaming" which we do when we don't want to spend all that damn time.

You have extensive options for customizing your party, with a decent variety of skills for each of 7 different character classes.

Yeah, customizing my party. Also in the category of "things I have to do before I can start having fun." What happened to "here's a sword and an onrushing tidal bore of level-1 monsters"?

This is not a problem limited to the casual gaming sphere. A few years ago, I played Clive Barker's Undying, an uninspired but decently-executed magic-shooter, heavy on the storyline. I had some fun. It had alternate worlds and puzzley boss-fights, which are the two things I demand out of an action game. Then last year I saw ads for Clive Barker's Jericho, and I think "Yay, a brand which I know is decently-executed... oh. Squad of seven characters to control. Screw that." And so I went off to play American McGee's Scrapland instead, which was an endless series of uninspired and storyline-light hovercraft racing missions, but at least it drops you into the patootie and doesn't expect you to micromanage a bunch of wingmen while fighting and racing your way out.

No, I am not an absolutist about this. Single-character control is not an iron law of nature (unlike "avoid third-person adventure games unless they are written by God", God being Telltale in this case). But the last squaddie action game I really enjoyed was Project Eden -- a game in which your four distinctively identical team members respawn every time they die. So you really can ignore two or three of them at any given time. It's not good tactics, but it lets you get your footing so that you can treat the squad tactical options as a bonus, rather than a crippling responsibility.

"Crippling responsibility" sums up everything in my life that I play computer games to forget.

Plus, Project Eden switches over to puzzle gaming in between fights, dropping the time pressure in favor of exploring clever environmental interactions. I don't mind coordination planning when I have time to think, and when the penalties don't involve being razzed and kicked back to an old save point.

Okay, and I played the PS2-era Bard's Tale game. I have no explanation for that. It wasn't the best thing ever, but I was able to cope for the sake of the absurd sense of humor. Aristophanes would have approved.

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Greg (May 20, 2008 at 11:38 AM):

I'll definitely second a lot of pre-game customization as a pet peeve of mine in computer RPGs. Not only because it's stuff to do before the real fun begins, but the first time around, you're making these decisions blindly, and don't know enough about what's ahead to not make a wrong choice.

(On the other hand, I don't mind complicated character creation in tabletop RPGs. I suspect that's because of the variety of scenario, since you can reroll your character without having to go through the same quests and cutscenes again)

http://steak.place.org/dougo/ (May 20, 2008 at 1:50 PM):

This post and Greg's comment remind of the old Traveller RPG in two ways. The pre-game character generation process was itself a pretty entertaining minigame, and the CRPG version (circa 1991) did a pretty good job of recreating that, as I recall. But after that the CPRG was completely unplayable: you had a party of characters, and you had to assign each character an order to get him to do anything, but the game was real-time, so as you were giving an order to one character, your other characters were just standing around being killed by the computer-controlled bad guys. I could never get past the first combat encounter! Either it was never playtested at all, or there was some UI toggle that I never found that would have made it playable.

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