Monday, June 23, 2008

Myst: the movie: the trailer

People talk about a movie based on the Myst games. People have been talking about it since Myst first appeared. Cyan even starting working with the Sci-Fi Channel around 2002, but that effort was quietly canned after a few months. (For creative differences, i.e., Cyan didn't like what the SFC was planning. As the SFC's adaptations have ranged from the miserable (Earthsea, Riverworld) all the way up to adequate (Children of Dune), nobody was too stricken about this.)

It is less well known that a couple of indie filmmakers have been struggling with a Myst film for several years now. They only opened their web site this past February, but there has been a great deal of quiet work before that.

Patrick McIntire and Adrian Vanderbosch do not yet have a movie. They do not yet have funding, or actors, or indeed a complete script. They do, however, have a concept trailer. This is an animatic, a series of storyboard images linked with music and voiceover dialogue. They produced it in 2004, in support of their proposal to Cyan to make a movie. Cyan liked the looks of it, and said "Go for it."

Yesterday they put this animatic on-line. So take a look.

It may help to know that the movie is based on Myst: The Book of Ti'ana. It is set many years before the Myst games, the era of Atrus's grandparents, at the height (and end) of the D'ni civilization.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Penny Arcade game: Rain-Slick Words Words Mumble

A fascinating investigation into the difference between a web-comic's subject and its audience. By which I mean this: On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 1 -- and what am I supposed to call it for short, anyway? -- is a game which will frustrate most readers of Penny Arcade. Just because the comic is about hardcore gamer geeks, doesn't mean the game should be built for them.

Episodic gaming has broken through with Sam&Max, and once again everyone is trying to storm the breach. I could go on about whether that is a good idea, but instead let me clear up the misconception that snared me: OTR-SPoD (this game, I mean) is not an adventure game. It's a CRPG. A Final Fantasy style CRPG -- you walk around the screen, until bam you get into a fight, and then the two teams face each other in a tidy row and select combat options from a menu until one team is pulp.

Now, it's not quite Final Fantasy -- it's the subgenre which is real-time. (If I were a hardcore CRPG gamer geek, I would know what games to compare it to, but I'm not -- I just read about them in webcomics.) Each of your characters has a little timer that builds up, and after twenty seconds (or thirty, or whatever) he can take a punch. (Or fire a gun, or whatever.) And you can block enemy blows by hitting the spacebar at the right moment. So to fight effectively, you have to hover over your controls and react quickly. But it's still selecting combat options from a menu.

I have not yet mentioned the exploration or adventure aspects of Rain-Slick (as we may call it). This is because there aren't any. You meet characters who want items, or you find items which are used in places; but they aren't puzzles. (Except in the broadest sense of "something which requires you to interact with the game".) They're the plot tokens you get for clobbering enemies. Each part of the story is "kill ten or twenty of those monsters", either explicitly or with a plot token pasted on. It's unquestionably a Penny Arcade script -- amusingly moronic characters, ceaseless obscenity, and fruit-violating robots -- but these things are in no way integrated into what you do.

I personally prefer adventure games to CRPGs. That's not my point in this review. My point is, Sam&Max is fun for non-gamers. At least, it can be fun. Because if you get stuck in an adventure game, you find a walkthrough and then you're unstuck. If you're enjoying the jokes, you can plow on through with the hints -- you may not feel clever, but you'll appreciate the cleverness that's in the game, and you'll be engaged with the plot. Plus, you can put down the walkthrough at any time and think "Hey! I can solve this next bit myself!" Sam&Max doesn't get harder as you progress through it. (I'd argue it gets easier, as the designers get better at smooth puzzle and clue flow.)

You can't do that with Precipice (if I may call it that). The entire game is combat, which means your skill at the combat system matters. It's real-time, which means you can't go ask the Internet for help. If you aren't good at clicking, whacking the space bar, and managing your items, you just won't get very far.

I'm not saying this is a hard game. Devil May Cry 3 was hard. Penny Arcade (you know what I mean, right?) is designed for experienced, moderately skilled action gamers. That's me, and I enjoyed the fighting. I rarely felt like I was getting stomped.

However -- I bet most web comics fans aren't experienced, moderately skilled action gamers. I'm sure Gabe and Tycho are. Maybe the people who post in the forums are. But is that their audience? I have a lot of friends who would be happy to show up for the fruit robots and the bad jokes, but who would never reach the third scene of Oh I Give Up Already (better known in these pages as the Lamb).

And the other "however" -- the thing gets harder as you progress. The last monster is a colossus with 32000 hit points, or some silly number. And I don't mean a Shadow Of The colossus with hidden weaknesses and exciting paths of attack. You slug it out. And if you fail, you reload and slug it out again.

Or you don't. I got stomped the first time I tried it. And I thought, do I want to try this again? Gather twice as many combat items, and then blow another fifteen minutes seeing whether I can cope with this thing?

No, I did not. I put it down, as Alton Brown likes to say, and just walked away. The game was too hard for me. And I'm an experienced, moderately skilled action gamer.

So why should I buy On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode 2? Answer: I shouldn't. I'd like to read the comic of it, but the game is not for me. And the problem with an episodic series is, you have to hook your audience for the long term.

I'm sure ... has an audience, and they're probably laughing it up on the forums, mocking the rest of us. But I bet it's not the audience that the creators should have gone for.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Erick Wujcik, 1951-2008

In March I wrote here about the death of Gary Gygax. Yesterday I heard about the death of another RPG designer: Erick Wujcik. But you're much less likely to know his name. (Or be able to spell it, but never mind that now...)

His bibliography is long, but I knew him for the Amber Diceless Role-Playing system. (Wikipedia link because there is no good home page for the game right now... drat.)

I have never been in the bleeding edge of RPG gaming, so I don't know everything that led up to Wujcik's 1991 diceless design. I do know that it spun my head around sideways. The nature of RPG gaming had been obvious to me since I was eight years old: you decide what you are going to do, you work out the odds of success (based on your skills and the nature of the task), and then you roll dice to see whether you succeed or fail. Hit or miss. Find the secret door or walk past it. Make your saving throw or turn to stone.

The Amber system offhandedly junked that whole idea. You're playing a superhero. (The characters in Zelazny's Amber books don't wear their underwear on the outside, but they are superhuman beings.) You don't have a chance of breaking down that door; you break down that door, because you are awesome. The guy standing next to you may be awesome at fencing -- that's his character role, not the result of lucky rolls.

Wujcik's insight was to set up a way to distribute these talents among the gaming group, via an auction system. And then to create stories which were shaped by the shifting alliances of the group (Amber characters never trust each other), and their manipulation of events. Once you come down to the attempt, you know how it's going to come out -- so all the fun is in scheming how you'll approach it.

I played in an Amber campaign, although it fell apart after just a couple of sessions. None of us were hard-core RPGers, except I guess for Eric. I think that actually made Amber easier for us. On the other hand, it meant none of us had the habit of making time for gaming, week after week. At any rate, those few sessions were wacky and interesting and difficult. Awkward, but interestingly awkward. Not at all the tedious awkwardness of my pre-teen D&D attempts.

Diceless role-playing did not go on to conquer the RPG landscape. It did inspire Nobilis, R. Sean Borgstrom's claim on the Most Stylish RPG Ever. Nobilis mixes up the pure diceless nature with elements that allow more scene-by-scene unpredictability. Again, you play a superhuman being -- the deity of some aspect of reality: sunlight, or zeppelins, or treachery, or what have you. The game rules give a very general guide to what you can do (creation is more difficult than destruction; destroying a zeppelin is easier than deleting the entire commercial zeppelin industry from reality; etc). But it mostly comes down to applying your aspect cleverly. You're never walking into a battle that you're certain to lose, because there might be a way to bring zeppelins into it...

(And yes, Nobilis is a game where you can delete the entire commercial zeppelin industry from reality by retroactively causing the Hindenburg to burn in 1937. I told you it was cool.)

As D&D 4.0 sloshes irrestistably towards us, the bulk of the RPG world remains in the old, pre-Amber, "roll to see if you succeed" model. The interesting fringe has moved beyond the diceless, into territory which seems even stranger. Imagine a game in which you decide what you want, roll the dice, and then decide what you are going to do. This is essentially the model of Dogs in the Vineyard, and it makes more sense than you think. You have leeway to use your rolled dice in different ways, or bring in the "cleverness" aspect by using your character history or traits. But sometimes you just roll crap -- and that makes for good roleplaying. Are you going to play this scene as failure, near-success, pyrrhic victory? Will it cost in reputation, self-respect, or blood?

These are the games for people who want their characters to have interesting lives, rather than to succeed at every challenge... and you can learn more about the topic than I know by Googling "narrativist games". I have no standing to give that lecture.

I have no standing to lecture about any of this. If that Amber game wasn't the last paper-and-pencil RPG I took part in, it was the second-to-last. I just find all this stuff neat, is all. And it's all grain for the "Can I do this on a computer? Why not?" mill.

Erick Wujcik: a man who fed the mill, for many of us. Keep the gears turning.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Comics about digital games

A cheap topic, perhaps -- there are web-comics about everything. But I stumbled across two of these this week, and was reminded about the third. So let us venture forth.

(Links are to the first strip of each comic.)

To be honest, the binding thread across these three comics is my reaction: "Why... would somebody... be writing a comic... about that?" (Picture plaintive gesticulation of at least three limbs.) I plead guilty to the freak show. In each case, however, there is an answer to the question.

+EV is written to the audience of a great and powerful online gaming industry -- of which I know practically nothing. (I even have friends who work in that industry! But the all-seeing eye of Zarf is really pretty nearsighted and parochial. I stick with my non-third-person adventure games. It's a life.)

Clockwork Game concerns a piece of gaming history. It's too young a strip for the plot to be apparent, but I'm intrigued.

And My Name is Might Have Been is self-justifying. I won't spoil it.