Monday, October 31, 2005

God of War mini-review

God of War, Sony's recent action title for the Playstation 2, represents the pinnacle of that platform's technical achievements. That's an impressive enough feat, but what's even more impressive is just how fun God of War is to play.

Part of what makes God of War a success is the setting. The game is set in mythological Greece, focused around Athens, with the main character a tortured Spartan warrior named Kratos. In keeping with the setting, Kratos must battle through hordes of mythological creatures such as cyclops, hydras, and medusas. The game is rather violent, which at first seems off-putting to those who may have grown up with sanitized children's Greek myths. However, Kratos' violent, madness of the gods-induced descent into violent mental illness, is reminiscent of nothing less than that of Heracles, the most famous of Greek heroes.

The graphics of the game successfully match the ambition of the setting, with attractive backgrounds and character detail. The monsters, with the possible exception of the cyclops, are all superbly animated.

All that would be meaningless, of course, if the game didn't play well, but fortunately, God of War plays like a dream. The controls are responsive, with a great variety in action options, including various magic spells. Yet more important than that, perhaps, is the fact that the game feels like an action game should. The player gets a visceral thrill from engaging in combat, as Kratos dances dangerously with his blades flashing into enemies, setting up violent combos in a manner similar, though superior, to Devil May Cry.

God of War does include a few missteps. Its attitude towards sexuality is as immature as the violence is mature, and it does seem rather short. These things do not, however, prevent it from being the PS2's showcase title.

KOTOR mini-review

After moving the Fallout style of character creation to the AD&D universe for Baldur's Gate and Neverwinter Nights, Bioware picked up a new license and created an AD&D Star Wars RPG in Knights of the Old Republic. The time setting - 4000 years before the events portrayed in the movies - is theoretically one of the most interesting things about the game, but surprisingly is essentially irrelevant. The only difference between it and the galaxy of The Phantom Menace is that the Sith are a known galactic force. Other than that, the bad guys still travel in almost-Star Destroyers, the good guys travel in an almost-Millenium Falcon. Lightsabers, blaster rifles, Tattooine, Jedi - you name your favorite aspect of the Star Wars universe, it's in the game, 4000 years before.

Still, one would imagine that it would be cool to fly all over the galaxy, doing Jedi things, fighting evil, or fighting good, depending on whether you play dark side or light. There are seven planets to visit, each with 10 or so quests, some simple, some slightly more complex. However, the main quest utilizes one of the laziest approaches to game plot design around - you have to collect four parts of an item on four different planets to succeed. This pushes the gameplay into the same pattern, over and over - go to planet, solve minor quests, solve main quest, go to new planet.

This wouldn't be much of a problem if the planets were larger, but they're not. They tend to consist of 4 or 5 small areas, in linear progression - Town, Road, Dangerous Area, More Dangerous Area. They're very easily explored, as well, lending the impression that KOTOR is a tiny, tiny game. Which is a very odd impression to come away with from a game that should feel galactic.

The Antagonist in Game Plots

The antagonist. The big boss. The Foozle. Whatever you call the bad guy of your favorite video game, chances are, if you like the story, you think the bad guy was awesome. Is there a fan of Final Fantasy VII who doesn't worship Sephiroth's bangs? While people like me, who prefer FF6, also prefer Kefka as a bad guy. And my favorite console RPG, the aforementioned Suikoden II, has my favorite bad guy combo with the pure evil Luca Blight and the idealistic antagonist of Jowy.

It's not difficult to explain why the bad guy is the driving force behind game plots. It's because game stories are driven by conflict, almost always between good and evil, and almost always, the good guy is really freakin' boring. There's basically two types of good guy in games, the idealistic teenager and the not-very-reluctant-fighter. Honestly, how long does it take Cloud Strife to go from being an amoral mercenary to Hero of the World? About 10 seconds?

In games, however, often the antagonist - the character whose conflicts the hero provide the game with focus - differs from the big bad guy - the being which must be defeated at the very end of the game (CGW's former RPG guru Scorpio entertainingly named that big bad guy "the Foozle".) For example, in the charming Saturn/PSX RPG Grandia, the main character's antagonist is the not-evil Col. Mullen, who must eventually realize the error of his ways. In the first half of Warcraft 3, the antagonist is also the protaganist, the tortured Prince Arthas, though this kind of antagonism is an extreme rarity, especially done well.

The focus on the bad guy as the driving force behind a game's plot also helps to explain why game plots are so weak. It's because their bad guys are weak. For a bad guy to succeed in an overdramatic setting, like games almost always are, they must either be remarkably human, or remarkably inhuman. A human enemy creates empathy and sadness, or at least understanding. An inhuman enemy can create fear and hatred.

I call this split the Iliad/Odyssey methods of storytelling, which should serve as a good set of examples. In the Iliad, Achilles is the protaganist, and is a big jerk, but a recognizably human jerk. Hektor, the antagonist, is the most sympathetic male character in the story. Hektor must die, but when he does, it is a tragedy.

In the Odyssey, the antagonist is no longer a person, but the forces of nature anthropormphized into Poseidon, the ocean god. Odysseus struggles against not recognizable humans, but dangers in the form of monsters and natural distasters.

Most games lie between these two extremes. Game villians are generally forces of nature forced into the weak flesh of humans, like the pure evil of Sephiroth whining about destroying the world for no readily apparent reason. Or they are humans with inhuman motivation, wanting to destroy the world just because they felt like being evil one day, or like in D&D, they have an evil "alignment". This is ludicrous, of course, the great villains of human history always believed that they were doing good.

There are a few exceptions, but they are rare. Primary in these has to be Ultima VI: The False Prophet. In U6, the game world's humans are involved in a destructive war with the gargoyles. In any other game, the main character's quest would be to fight gargoyles until they got strong enough to defeat the Gargoyle King and save humanity. In Ultima 6, however, the quest is to first remove the gargoyles from the main battle lines, then to learn to understand them, then to bring peace and save the gargoyles from destruction. That's right, a game where you win by STOPPING violence. Shocking, and never repeated.

There's also the Fallout-based games, which offer the choice of good or evil. These include Baldur's Gate, Planescape Torment, and Knights of the Old Republic. By the player's choices, the main character becomes good or evil, depending on how they solve certain quests. However, generally speaking, these games still have basic antagonists to fight against, only the form of that battle changes with the player's choices.

Until game writers start to form human bad guys who draw the gamer's sympathy, or pure evil bad guys who draw the gamer's hatred, then there's no real reason to worry about bad guys. After all, we know that the world is going to be saved. But if it's a battle for your enemy's soul, or a battle to prevent the bad guy from destroying everything beautiful...then, then we can care.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005


Imagine what Nintendo could do. They own two of the most beloved franchises in gaming: Zelda and Metroid. Every few years, they release a new version of these games, and they’re great games – they’re just essentially the same as the previous versions. You know, when you’re playing a Zelda game, that you’re going to get a boomerang, just as you know when you’re playing a Metroid game that there is a morph ball in your future. Yet, still, glimpses of potential can be seen in recent versions of these games.

The reason that Zelda and Metroid have this potential, and a new game doesn’t, is that they are franchises, and franchises have automatic advantages over other games in their presentation. They have instant setting. Much less exposition is required in a Star Wars game than a non-franchise game, because the gamer knows that they’re fighting against an evil empire using lasers. The sounds, music, and graphics are constant reminders of this, while another game would be forced to create that feeling on its own. Zelda and Metroid have this.

Nintendo has dramatically changed other franchises, most notably, its flagship Mario games. The original single-screen games that the famous Italian plumber first appeared in was replaced by fast-paced, scrolling games, which in turn were replaced by slower, secret-hunting adventure-style games. Along the way, Nintendo decided to make other styles of games using the franchise: Dr. Mario, Mario Kart, Mario Party, and most importantly, Mario RPG and its successors, Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga. These role-playing games which used the trappings of the previous Mario games were tremendous successes, because they added to the franchise without dramatically changing it, and they used the conventions of the Mario games in a different form to achieve different styles of fun.

I’m not suggesting that Metroid Power Tennis appear in your local game shop anytime soon. But I am saying that maybe it’s time for Metroid to be something other than simply exploring a planet with ice and fire caves for power-ups. Maybe it’s time for Metroid to use another form a storytelling, say, one that includes other characters. Imagine Samus exploring a space station that has people in it, offering obstacles and aid. The same exploration style of gameplay which works so successfully could be enhanced with improved storyline. The most recent major Zelda game, The Wind Waker, offers a glimpse of the improvements which could be made. By far, my favorite part of the game takes place early on, when Link arrives on an island looking for a quest, to find the island destroyed, and a curse placed on the entire game world, drenching it in a rainstorm in the middle of the night. The player must return to town and sneak around, attempting to the magical items discovered so far in order to discover what other people are doing. The combination of manipulation of the game world with adventure and character interaction forms a terrific gaming experience, which the rest of the game, while quite good, does not possess. If things like this were done consistently throughout the game, the results could be astonishing.

I should note that I have not played Metroid Prime: Echoes. For all I know, it's a role-playing game set in a metropolis with an innovative conversation system. I doubt it, but who knows? Maybe Nintendo is one step ahead of me.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Why Renaissance Gamer?

In case you're wondering why I gave this project the title of Renaissance Gamer, it's pretty simple. When people ask me what kind of games I like to play, I don't really have a response. "Whatever's good?" I can switch from fighting games to real-time strategy, from turn-based wargames to turn-based sports games, from console RPGs to PC RPGs. Pretty much the only type of game that I'm not interested in are games which are attempts to simulate things that I'm not interested in: hardcore wargames, simulations or sports I don't like. (World Cricket 2K5, here I come! Though I did actually learn the rules of rugby by playing a Sega Genesis game once.) A renaissance man dabbles in everything, so it's an apt analogy for my gaming habits.

I also like history. And the Renaissance happened in the past. So there you go.

It also functions as a title for this project because I'm interested in good writing about games, and if there's one thing that the Renaissance loved, it was rhetoric. The hero of the Renaissance was the Roman Cicero, for his ability to write brilliant letters and make superb arguments. I hope to have high-quality writing as well, to eliminate the laundry-list style of game review that bores so many.

There are probably other historical comparisons to the Renaissance, but I'm not thinking of any. Who knows if this name will stick? I'm intending to make this a community with a much better website than this, and others who wish to write - there are two invitations out now - may think of a name that's much cooler. But for now, I am a lone autocrat.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Historiography of Civilization

Civilization is one of very few games to attempt to simulate aspects of human history on a global scale, and it is by far the most important to attempt to depict the entirety of human history. This is a massive subject matter, and the Civilization series attempts to deal using various abstractions of aspects of history. The process of this simplification, however, accents what Civilization considers important. An examination of the historiography of Civilization reveals a generally, but not exclusively, historiographically conservative* view of the workings of human history.

*By conservative I don’t necessarily mean “voted for George W. Bush” but rather is the sort of history found in old (pre-1960’s would probably be a fair date to set) history books, or modern school textbooks. What this entails should become obvious.

The most important and obviously historically conservative aspect of Civilization is its focus on the military. To a player of Civilization, the claim that Civ is overtly militaristic may seem odd. After all, there are several things to concentrate on: military, science, happiness, culture (in Civ3), diplomacy, and economy. There’s also alternate method of victory than conquest, the traditional space race, as well as several other alternatives added in Civ3 and its expansions. But, to a non-player, Civilization is quite clearly a militaristic game. The simple reason for this is that the player’s time is consumed by militarism. Everything else, save for worker jobs, is a simple click or two to build a Library or Temple. A civilization of 10 cities could have nine of them building improvements and one building military units, but the time the player spends on those military units could easily equal the time spent on the rest of the cities. Also, these improvements do their work off the screen, where the military action occurs on-screen. In fact, if one looks at the map screen of Civilization, the world map, one will see almost exclusively military units and cities. Happiness, economy, science, and so forth, are all almost exclusively under the hood. Finally, the military aspect of the game is clearly the most important because it is the one aspect that cannot be ignored. Ignoring anything else will create annoyances, but ignoring the military will mean almost-certain defeat.

This is a simple game design decision, of course, but it does not have to be this way. The Imperialism games, for example, focused the player’s mental energy and time on economic priorities. (Ironically, Imperialism’s ad campaign ran with the slogan “Other strategy games too civilized for you?”) The militaristic nature of the Civilization games is clearly a design decision, and one with obvious consequences for interpretation of the nature of human history.

A second important historically conservative aspect of the Civilization series is that it views human history as universally progressing to a steadily better future. This is a view usually found in mainstream Western societies, especially before World War One. One cannot go backwards in Civilization. Technology always creates a continuous improvement. Improvements in a city are entirely good (unless they break your economy, which is extraordinarily rare). Newer military units are always better than older units. It is possible to speak of “falling behind” in Civilization, as though human history is a footrace. This has the effect of making some civilizations appear “better” for how much “faster” they have run the race.

Even more importantly, the progress is considered universal. The technologies of Democracy and Communism are equally useful to the Americans and the French, as well as the Zulu and the Japanese. The discovery of Gunpowder has the same effects for the Chinese as it does the Germans. These technologies are essential to progress. This view of history is widespread – and dangerous. One can quite easily imagine George W. Bush playing Civilization and landing tanks on the Iraqi border to offer them Democracy in exchange for a Mutual Protection Pact…”Be warned, Iraqis, our words are backed up by NUCLEAR WEAPONS.” But, as America didn’t learn in Vietnam and is currently not learning in Iraq, the rest of the world doesn’t always view things on the universal progress scale. Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, are enamored with the universal progress viewpoint probably because it means that they’re winning the footrace. Civilization reinforces this viewpoint.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to comprehend how Civilization could remain a competitive game with winners and losers without operating on a progress model. I like to think that I can think creatively about such things, but I can’t think of how a winner or loser could be chosen in Civilization without “progress” being made. I suppose something to make it possible for progress to be lost? The concept of universal progress, however, can be worked around. The Rhye’s of Civilization Expansion, for example, demonstrates how the Civ3 engine can be manipulated to slightly alter the concept of universal progress of human societies, with more different unique units and religions. Even the official Civ3 Conquests expansion demonstrates the possibility of different tech paths in its Age of Discovery scenario, albeit halfheartedly.

The final major aspect in which Civilization is historiographically conservative is in its portrayal of its human history as the interaction of separate nation-states. All of the civilizations in the games play similarly, and all are under complete control of the player. This can lead to obvious absurdities – the first two Greek cities are Athens and Sparta – and has the effect of negating internal conflicts in a civilization. To carry on the Greek example, much of what is referred to as “Greek culture” in history is really Athenian culture, and Sparta is always held up as diametrically opposed to Athens. The extraordinarily important internal-driven change in Civilization is so abstracted as to be nothing more than an occasional annoyance. The French Revolution and the American Civil War would, in Civilization, be modeled as exactly equivalent player-induced changes in government.

On the other hand, interactions between the nation-states is held up as critically important. Wars, technological exchanges, border clashes, and the like all occur and demand great amounts of player attention. Modeling the American Civil War would take only a few clicks to, say, switch the government from Republic to Democracy, while the Spanish-American War would be modeled in excruciating detail, from loading the troops onto the ships to having to entertain the Philippinos to prevent them from rebelling. This conforms to the conservative historical view that human history is little more than the creation of empires or nation-states and their struggles with one another, a viewpoint which every year manages to bore more and more high school students forced to remember the dates 1066, 1492, 1588, and 1914 (the conquest of England, opening of America by Columbus, failure of the Spanish Armada, and the start of World War One). This pushes Civilization firmly into the category of political and military history, while ignoring the extremely vibrant fields of social and intellectual history. The nation-based concept of civilizations is also based around European experience**, which manifests itself in Civilizations lone choice for a sub-Saharan African civilization, the Zulu, whose primary claim to fame was their banding together, European-style, in order to conflict with the European British. (Ironically, given its title, Rise of Nations is more fair to Africa, with its Bantu and Nubians being far worthier claimants to the concept of a ‘civilization.’)

**The argument that Civilization is Eurocentric is another form in which it is historiographically conservative, however, it seems so obvious that I have not yet written a demonstration of it.

For any epic strategy 4X*** game to move away from this model would require a complete change in thinking, moving towards a macromanagement model. That is, the player’s abilities to influence the game world are more limited, and as the civilization expands, the player has less control over the farther regions, creating true border zones and the potential for places within the civilization act on their own and drive internal change. Master of Orion III was originally designed to do something like this, but the designers panicked at the ambition, and instead opted for the “complete crap” style of gameplay. That disaster will almost certainly frighten away designers trying to create to this more historical, potentially more fun model of strategic gameplay.

*** eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate – the general category in which most strategy games fall, with Civilization as the Platonic ideal of the genre.

There is one aspect of Civilization, however, which is decidedly not in the conservative historiography, and that is the “Great Man” theory of history. This is the idea that leaders determine the course of events, that the most important people in history all have big important titles in front of their names. Political and especially military history naturally focus on this, where social history is a blatant rejection of the concept. Civilization’s only offering to this theory is that the leaders of each civ are important historical figures, but they exist only to add color to the game. Civ3 makes a slight attempt at the Great Man theory, but its military and scientific leaders are so generic that their names are irrelevant.

Excessive use of the Great Man theory of history has had some very negative effects. For example, it has lead to a simplification of the Civil Rights Movement as the personal story of Martin Luther King and maybe Malcolm X, while ignoring the struggles of those not directly connected to King, such as the volunteers who risked their lives in the South. In terms of Civilization, a player would see, for example, American foreign policy since World War II as a continuous evolution attempting to achieve similar goals, a far more healthy view than partisan bickering over differences in personality between Johnson and Nixon, or Bush and Clinton.

This is certainly not a necessary design decision. Many strategy games, including virtually all fantasy strategy games, have Great Men. The fantasy games have superpowered heroes worth a dozen army units. KOEI’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms game are based entirely around the strengths and weaknesses of its hundreds of individuals.

The Civilization series demonstrates outdated and simplistic views of human history. As a popular game series, it must be acknowledged as both a relic and a reinforcer of the culture that created it. Despite its obvious merits as a game, it shows the student of history that more work is required for the general society that there are different forms of history than those which are traditionally taught to young people.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Welcome to Renaissance Gamer

If I am going to create a gaming website, I have to start somewhere. I know Blogger, and therefore I'm getting something on web right now. Here is a mini-manifesto:

Consider the literary review. A book, reviewed by a serious publication, will speak about much more than whether the book was good or not. They will talk about previous similar books, what the book means for society, where the book fits into its time structure, what makes it work, what makes it special, and, if need be, the reviewer will go into lengthy descriptions of what the book does not do.

Consider the game review. The reviewer will tell you if the game is good or not. Maybe if the graphics are shiny. They can be improved, fairly easily. It doesn't require an independent press, though that wouldn't hurt. The mainstream gaming press can improve on its own - and it might do it without pressure as the industry matures.

We can do better. A generation of people has grown up as gamers, but also has the intellectual ability and training to analyze the games at a higher level. My goal is to become involved in a community of such people.