Posts Tagged ‘video games


It’s Not My Story: Narrative Restriction in Interactive Media

This, clearly, is the ponciest title I have yet used in any blog post. What it really means is that for the next sixteen paragraphs, I’m going to be ruminating on how, contrary to superficial expectation, taking away freedom in immersive interactive media can result in greater investment from the media’s consumer, not less.

Books are kinda neat. I want to set out my stall right here at the start. I like books. Films too. I like books and I like films. If you asked me whether it was true that I liked those things, I would tell you that it was and I would be telling the truth. There, I’ve said it. Now we’re clear. But they’re a bit old-hat, aren’t they?

You just sort of sit there and look at them. Do you know what else you sit there and look at? Paint drying, minute hands on clocks in waiting rooms, the bleak abyss behind the eyes of the human resources drone delivering corporate training. Isn’t it more fun when you’ve got something to do; isn’t it more fun when you’re actively participating in something? Because they’re static, because they don’t react to the person consuming them, aren’t films, aren’t books a bit… boring?

Interactivity, now that’s fun. I’m not just participating in somebody else’s story, I’m helping to tell it — I’m telling my own. Home story-telling is killing books. And which medium best encapsulates the paradigm of user-driven narrative? Why it’s video games, of course.

I once shot a man in a video game just to watch him die. And as he collapsed into a ragdoll physics-enabled heap at my feet, I was glad. I was glad because I had wanted to kill him, and I had been able to. I can do anything, man. Move over Ian Banks, I’m the one behind the typewriter now. That character is annoying, much better that he should die painfully.

You hear a lot about freedom. Politicians talk about it as though it’s a physical product to be consumed, controlled and exported; games designers trumpet how Super Manshooter IV will have “unparalleled levels of player freedom”; the Earth rotates about its axis unperturbed. Freedom’s fun you see, freedom’s where it’s at.

How many amazing video gaming moments have only been possible due to the freedom of the player to make decisions? Save the world from the oblivion gates, or don’t. Shoot the krogran or talk him around. Take the road less travelled, or follow the crowd. It’s your choice, your experience. You’re not just an observer at somebody else’s show, you’re the main event at your own. Freedom feels good, man.

Sniper scopeFreedom isn’t free though. Cohesiveness is usually the first casualty of introducing more narrative interaction. Emergent narratives most often lack the finesse and flow of experiences which, if not linear, are at least guided by immutable narrative guidelines. If it has a good story, you can pretty much guarantee the freedom in your favourite non-linear videogame is just an illusion; if you want a good story then you need to have the bumper rails up on the player’s freedom.

In truth I have always been opposed to it. I’ve always wanted freedom. I’ve always seen the merits of my being able to construct my own story, let my own imagination loose. I have found the trend towards highly scripted corridor shooters to be tiring and sad. I’m a virtual book-burner, me.

Something happened recently to make me put my flaming torch down though, and that something was indie read-em-up Don’t Take It Personally Babe, It’s Just Not Your Story. Placing you into the position of a frustrated and damaged man who becomes a teacher after an early mid-life crisis, it’s more of an interactive novel than a game. Even the term ‘interactive’ might be misapplied here.

You might not agree with many of the actions your character takes, or the things he says. He’s morally questionable at least, falling in love with one of his fifteen year old students and manoeuvering two students into a gay relationship with each other. You can’t make your character behave in the way that you want; you can’t in any way construct your own narrative. That’s part of the conceit of the game though: it’s just not your story.

And you know, it’s captivating. I found myself utterly absorbed in the game’s narrative, more than I’ve been in any game’s for years. There’s a theory applied to roleplaying games called GNS Theory, which assigns motivations to players. There are gamists who enjoy the mechanics of a situation (“I rolled a 20! I get a critical hit!”), narrativists who participate in the construction of a strong narrative behind their characters and the events of the game, and simulationists who revel in the sense of place, and are likely to consider their character in third person and ruminate on how their character would react, as though it were a separate entity rather than being under the player’s direct control. It’s Just Not Your Story is a simulationist’s dream.

More broadly though, I found it interesting how easily I overcame the barrier presented by my innate attraction towards a freer narrative. Once I’d accepted the loss of control I found I could access a whole new level of imaginative interaction. Why was my character behaving in this way? This became the area I could improvise within and think about.

For games which uphold the consequences of the player’s actions (so not Super Manshooter III, where if a squadmate dies then you have to restart from a checkpoint) it has become gaming gospel that the only way a player can have freedom in the narrative is by allowing them to do anything. There are many worthy games which allow the player to do this, and they are not per se bad games. Games can have a strong narrative without diminishing player investment if the story they present is interesting enough to convince the player to get on board.

One of my favourite authors, when questioned when a particular character in the novel series he writes will die, answered “at the dramatically appropriate moment of course”. That’s what you lose with unrestricted narratives.

Freedom can be slavery, slavery can be freedom. Let’s see more exciting, enthralling and engaging games where the narrative rules the roost. Let’s see developers who are brave enough to challenge established notions of videogame plotting and who are inventive enough to rediscover what books have always known. Let’s see freedom dethroned and story regaining its rightful place in interactive media.

The king is dead. Long live the king.


Valve: The Breakup Letter

Valve logoOh Valve, how I adored you. Our meeting was marked by fingertips brushing accidentally on purpose on the sleek shrinkwrap cover of Half-Life, and as your tram powered around my track I knew I wanted to be allowed to fill that vacancy in theoretical physics. When your one-eyed monster erupted green lightning at me I knew it was love.

The times we have shared I will never forget. Our first kiss, an explosion in the anomalous materials lab. Through you I found Xen, and then under the watchful eye of the G-Man we both found zen.

As the years went by our love grew only more devoted; you were my faithful partner, whose presence I knew I could always count on. In the heady happy days of our youth we visited Italy together and browsed melons and chickens at the market in the sunshine, laughing as they blew out into clouds of red, and was it just my imagination or did those intestines loop into a heart shape as they spiralled through the air?

And then the bad times came, and the sunshine was gone. We lived in our own fortress together, battered by the storms outside. We survived, we were a team. We were more than a team. Where my friends had turned away from me and their passions had turned to money, I knew that your passion was still me. I knew I loved you, and I knew that you loved me.

I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong. One day I ran to you, tired from a day of work in my grey office prison, looking for the solace of your arms. And you extended your perfectly crafted arm, and gently halted me. I stood baffled and despairing as you asked me to pay for your love.

The fortress of our love had been breached, as though a portal had opened and whatever precious ocean upon which we had floated had drained away. I knew this was the day of our love’s defeat. Already I miss you, and I know in my heart there will be nobody to replace you, nobody I will ever love as fiercely. Without you it feels that I’m living half a life.

From the rubble that is left of the fortress which together we once occupied in love I can see you walking away to join the horde of my old friends on the horizon. I can reflect and say you’re no more gone than they are; that I can still be your friend.

But I know that we were once so much more than that. And forgive me if I can’t forgive you, give me some sympathy for the heart you drove an alien appendage through. And if I hate you now, it’s only because I loved you then.


A gay nightmare simulator

Sometimes people make games. Sometimes those are ‘erotic’ games. Some people play them having received a request from a friend. Sometimes they are bad. Sometimes people review those games and post them on a blog.

screenshot of gunther

The first and most frightening man I meet. I call him Gunther.

I’m going to choose German as the language I use that site in, to make the games feel dirtier. The first problem I have run into is that I am being asked a question in German by a Picasso painting.

There are three options for my response. One of them has the number 75 in it. I will assume that this is a boast about the length of my penis. I have selected this option.

Apparently this was an invalid choice. The Picasso figure has stepped away to reveal he is tragically deformed and has had his torso replaced with an upside down triangle painted salmon pink. The two other options remain. I can ask him something “ahm poppen?” which is either about poppers or carbonated beverages, or I can say something longer. Another decision I make based on my guesses about the language.
gunther and his rainbow ceilingThis was also apparently invalid. I now notice that if you squint his head and neck resemble an impressionistic penis. I resort to the third option, and tell him something about funf stern bekommen. This was the correct answer, and he straightens to face me. We have been joined by a blond man who studiously avoids presenting me with anything other than his profile. I decide at this point that the man in the salmon sweater is called Gunther, and that the blond man with the square jaw and pointed nose is Frederik.

Faced with another three choices, I opt this time to abandon my attempts to interpret the words and simply choose the one with an exclamation mark on the basis that it might express arousal. Frederik gets right in my face, but continues to present me with only one side of his face. He looks tired; even from this view I can see a bag under his eye. I find him more attractive than Gunther because blonds have more fun, so I choose to say the sentence containing the phrase “ich will Party”.

He backs off and Gunther butts in, his eyebrow raised in an expression of either contempt or surprise. My attempt at divining the meaning of what Gunther says results in me believing he is telling me that Dan has got lost. I cannot begin to understand either conversational option I am presented with at this point. There are two, one with a yellow background and one with a green. Of the two, I prefer the colour yellow. “Wir kahn ich dir das Geld geben?”, I ask sincerely.

Frederik vanishes from view and Gunther moves to the right, leaving him standing right in front of me. Simultaneously, two arrows appear. Arrow 1 points at a wire leading from an electrical junction box behind Gunther, whilst arrow 2 points at Gunther’s shoulder. At this point I realise Gunther has painted the ceiling of his hall with the LGBT rainblow flag which strikes me as an odd thing for a person to do.

I read the text and see the word “Maustaste” several times. I assume I am being asked about mustaches, and begin to wonder how the arrows correlate to the answer to the question of whether I like mustaches. Arrow 1 seems most likely to represent “no” as the wires from an electrical box will be dangerous, and mustaches are dangerous to the chances of you not looking like a phenomenal tool. However at this point I realise the interface has performed a clever trick, and what I am actually required to do is to pay Gunther using a coin stored at the top of my screen. I am distressed as I preferred Frederik and I assume I am paying to have sex with him, but the game offers me no choice and I give Gunther the money, feeling defeated.

Gunther seems to have left me and I wander, baffled, down a corridor into a bar. Have I misunderstood everything that has happened so far? I begin to doubt the fundementals of my own existence. As I enter the heads of the patrons turn. The bar tender has his top off and appears to be making the universal “wanker” gesture with his hand. I take an instant dislike to him.

There is a businessman with a red nose sat at the bar, either drunk or suffering from poor circulation. He surveys me unfavourably. A discarded motorcycle helmet sits between him and the next customer, a man with a receding hairline wearing biker leathers and holding a pint of beer with such a head of foam that it is almost as high as the glass again. Off to the side, past the bar, is a room labelled ‘DARKROOM’. I pause momentarily to consider why a German bar has that sign in English, but as I am dissatisfied with my options at the bar I head towards it.
As I near the door, two men appear from nowhere, one of whom is playing pinball. His friend is wearing a bomber jacket open to reveal his chest, and a pair of red braces hang from his waist. He offers in his outstretched arm an electrical shaver. They have a conversation and bizarrely I am invited to participate. I select a phrase at random, and the two men resume their previous activities without speaking another word to me. I must have said the wrong thing.

The ‘DARKROOM’ is not especially dark. Two men wearing leather pants and with no tops on watch pixellated erotica on a small television. Signs have been spray painted onto the walls. One resembles a steaming turd and the doorway it is above has an images of tickets.

I do not wish to pay to see human waste, so I avoid this door. Another room leads to the “sling room” which is in the basement, but I have no need for a sling as I am uninjured. This leaves me with the last doorway. I know I am uninterested in what I have seen behind me, so I press on to this room.

The room is completely pitch black. Men moan every now and again, and conversations in German fill the screen. I retreat, scared and confused.  This is the worst evening of my life. I am not into this.

I try to leave, hurrying back through the bar to the exit, but Gunther bars the way. He says something I don’t fully understand, but the sentiment is still clear: I am trapped. I return to the bar, intent on summoning help. This time I go more fully into the room. Over here there is a couple on a sofa, one of whom is wearing an army uniform. Near the bar an attractive blond boy flirts with another comparative youngster who is wearing a fishnet tank top. At the rear of the bar a man with prominent chest hair surveys me with interest.

The army man will surely save me. I approach the couple and say something random in German. Without stopping kissing, one of them tells me he is Frank and he is 27. He asks me a question but ignores my answer so I approach the blond near the bar. As I near him his trousers fall and he looks at me, then puts his pants back on and turns away.


I feel trapped and giddy, I need air. I want to escape this place.

I barge past the man with prominent chest hair, but find myself in the toilets. Grime is everywhere. There is moaning coming from the cubicle and the noise of something dripping. I agree to maintain the firm idea that it is dripping water, although at this point I would be surprised by such an obvious and innocous event.

I stagger back into the bar. Nothing is right about this place, everything is unpleasant and feverish. The music loops again, the same twenty seconds repeated forever, a symphony of bad club music played in the key of despair. Nobody I talk to wants to listen to what I have to say. The punk in the fishnet tank top drops his pants as I approach, then looks annoyed and rebukes me before resuming his flirtation with the other trouser-dropping patron.

My protestations to the bar tender are met with an interruption by the businessman with the red nose. The biker at the bar talks to me and I reply with German whose meaning I cannot possibly begin to understand. He gives me his business card. I don’t think he was even listening.

This is my lowest point. I have nothing more to lose. I am trapped in a hedonistic nightmare, a satire of dating. Nobody cares about me, nobody listens.

I approach the man at the back with chest hair, and stand so close to him his nipple and armpit fills my vision. Again I try to explain in German that I am trapped, that I need to escape. I want to tell him about Gunther and about the men at the bar who drop their trousers; I want to tell him I am afraid and alone. I don’t know what it is he thinks I have said, but at the end of our brief two-sentence conversation he begins to masturbate under his trousers.

This is the end. I have nowhere more to go, nothing more to say, nobody new to meet. I will never leave this place. I realise now that perhaps all the other people are stuck here too, perhaps one day I too will become like them; an unthinking and uncaring patron of this place. My purpose will be to confuse and demoralise new ‘guests’, to make them like us: empty, broken human beings. I have lost and the game has won. I drop my pants and close the window.


Fort Dwarfress: The Dwarfening pt 2

Dwarfening logo

A continuation of the story told by The Dwarfening of one gamer’s attempts to crack open the inaccessible shell of the Dwarf Fortress user interface to feast on the soft and succulent game beneath.

The Fonz was chopping wood. Much of the formerly magnificent forest surrounding my future mountain halls (majestically named Oilyteachers) was now reduced to so much lumber laying unclaimed on the floor. For a moment, surveying the devastation, I felt ill. Then one of my cats gave birth and I realised that I’d need to build a butcher’s shop soon. Dwarves need food after all, and just eating mushrooms from the farms wouldn’t — wait. Mushrooms. From the farms. The farms…

To say that my forgetting to build any farms was a minor oversight would naturally be to hugely understate the mistake I’d made. Was I already well on the road to losing? Had my obsession with clear cutting the forest and opening vast chasms in the rock led me so astray that even now my dwarves teetered on the brink of salvation? A quick check of their status revealed that fortunately all was not lost. Though many of my food reserves were gone, I estimated that what I had left was probably sufficient to keep my dwarves alive until my farms were producing. Besides, my dwarves could probably do to lose a little weight anyway.

Farming is not simple. I found that out the hard way. If you want to grow food underground (and honestly, who doesn’t?), there are a number of steps to take. First you need to issue the order for your miners to excavate the room for the cave, then the next logical step seems to be to place a farm in that excavated room, right? I can hear your answer to that rhetorical question, and it’s “right!”

You are wrong, and why are you answering rhetorical questions? No, in fact it turns out that although you can place a farm anywhere it won’t actually grow crops unless you place it on a muddy floor. This makes perfect and complete sense in bizarro land, where a slightly dirty floor is capable of sustaining fields of wheat. I discovered this state of affairs the hard way, and only a trip to the main wiki for Dwarf Fortress clued me in on the mud situation.

So, mud. Fine, I would just mud up the floor a bit. Except I need to flood the room, which means I have to abandon the excavated room with its barren, lifeless farm and scout out an underground reservoir. Of course the only one I am able to find is so massive that the resulting flood covers the entirety of my burgeoning fortress in layers of foetid mud and leaves me feeling despondent. Halfa Scargill (my mining dwarf) narrowly avoids drowning, whilst my tailor Liberace looks displeased when he is roused from his nap in the middle of a corridor by a cascade of filthy water.

Still, as the flood waters eventually evaporate I am left with mud, glorious mud. Now I can farm!

It has been over a year since my dwarves arrived at Oilyteachers and dwarves from far afield begin flocking to Oilyteachers, clearly desperate to crawl around in the stinking mud. Some time spent on the Dwarf Fortress wiki let me know of a program called Dwarf Therapist. See, the interface in Dwarf Fortress is almost exactly as painful as receiving a mallet to the testicles. When new dwarves arrive they need to be told to do the jobs they’re good at, and without Dwarf Therapist the process of finding out what their skills are and altering their job priorities accordingly is excruciating.

A few clicks in Dwarf Therapist and I’m done! The original dwarves of Oilyteachers have been joined by Michelle Jackson (a natural ability with music, a poor understanding of social relationships) who will be a general dogsbody to help Bald Rick as her actual area of expertise is as a tailor and Liberace is much better than her. Another new arrival was highly skilled as a carpenter and woodcutter, he was promptly named Al Gore and assigned to fell every tree in sight. The last arrival was gifted with charm and social graces, as well as being a masterful appraiser. Hilary Clunton, my previous chief appraiser, was an amateur compared to this new arrival.

I named her Sugartits and I would go on to hate her with a fiery passion.

More soon.


Dwarf Fortress: The Dwarfening, pt1

Dwarfening logo

I had always liked the idea of Dwarf Fortress more than I’d liked the implementation. Who doesn’t want to build their own underground fortress? However, a thoroughly confusing UI and the lack of any kind of in-game instruction meant I just bounced straight off it the first time I gave it a go. Fortunately I am persistent. Read on to hear about my frustration with Sugartits.

Ok, so I should probably explain what Dwarf Fortress is. Imagine a ridiculously in-depth rogue-like dungeon management sim. That’s a little bit like Dwarf Fortress. When I say in-depth, what I really mean is in-depth. A dwarf I named Michelle Jackson entered a flood, carrying her baby. She dropped the baby in the flood by accident and spent minutes running around the water, panicked, trying to find it. If a game’s AI includes lost baby subroutines, I’m sold.

I began my game by following a set of tutorials on YouTube. I think it’d be pretty impossible to penetrate Dwarf Fortress without at least something as supportive as those tutorials; the developers of Dwarf Fortress have a lot to thank tutorial author Captnduck for. This time I would succeed where previously I had failed. This time I would win.

I began by failing. This is a bit of a theme in Dwarf Fortress. I picked a site with an aquifer, see. What harm could that possibly be? Turns out a lot of harm. I couldn’t dig in the rock because it was full of water. Failure: 2 minutes of gameplay and I had already lost. In Dwarf Fortress the process of losing is called Fun. I wasn’t currently sure about this.

I began again. In Dwarf Fortress you can set up your founding party of dwarves, and what they bring with them on their bold expedition to construct a new fortress home. I decided I would bring along a good mix of things, with a good amount of food. Little did I know how prescient this decision would prove to be. You see, like everything else, in Dwarf Fortress food production is complicated.

I’m getting ahead of myself. I named my dwarves. There was Hilary Clunton, my expedition leader. She was an experienced judge and appraiser, with a sideline in architecture. Hilary Clunton was smart. Next up was House MD, who I decided would be my doctor. I’ll admit that the name was the second thing I decided about him. I had leader and doctor covered, but now I needed a stone worker. Thus James Mason was born. You may be detecting a theme here. I also brought along The Fonz (wood cutting and carpentry) and Halfa Scargill (mining). Liberace would be my chief clothes/armor designer, and as a general dogsbody I brought along Bald Rick.

The site I selected this time was free from aquifers. You can’t fool me twice – or at least, if you do fool me twice it’s certainly not something I will be honest about when writing up my game experience on a blog. The site was on the side of a mountain, and its dwarven name was Uzolamal (Oilyteachers, in English). Thusly prepared, I broke the earth and began my fortress.

The first thing I decided my dwarves would need was food. I had brought along plenty of seeds, so after marking out for excavation the main pathway into my dungeon fortress I had Halfa Scargill cut out several rooms which would serve as my bread basket; a sort of subterranean Sussex. Meanwhile I decided I really wanted my dwarfs to have wood (hi my name is Tom and I am 13 years old) so The Fonz was mobilised to clear cut the forest. This may seem a drastic approach to conservation but I felt that I needed the materials a lot more than I needed the view.

Hilary Clunton was proving to be useless. I had anticipated her taking an active role, but her skills just weren’t coming in handy. I decided that until I had need of her particular talents she would be the chief refuse hauler of the fortress. Nobody ever said politics was dignified.

Everything was coming along nicely.

Continued in the next couple of days.


Freedom, D&D and PnP

A while ago, I wrote about freedom in DH. I got a comment on that and wrote a reply, but my response overran and is probably more suitable and certainly more readable as a post of its own. For convenience and context, here’s the comment:

What are your thoughts of DH and D&D systems vs totally free RP on forums etc?

To me, the greatest difference between PnP (pen and paper) RPGs like DH or D&D and an MMORPG or even a standard single player RPG like, say, Diablo or Baldur’s Gate, is the extent to which decisions are made based on the players.

The first thing to do is to acknowledge the impact D&D has had on mainstream internet gaming. The essence of D&D is characteristics measuring physical or inate prowess in an area (eg. strength, or charisma) combined with skills (things you can learn) and talents (remarkable things about you). The majority of the game is in skill checks, which are done via a random number (generated on the tabletop by dice) and utilise your innate characteristics and ranks in your chosen skills to determine whether you have been successful in your attempt to deploy a skill, or how successful (or not!) you’ve been.

Does that sound like pretty much every RPG ever? It should. From games you’d definitely expect to see it in (Mass Effect, World of Warcraft) to those you wouldn’t (Borderlands, The Sims), D&D always has and likely always will remain at the heart of gaming.

But why is it so popular? PnP connoisseurs will be aware of the myriad of alternate gaming systems out there, including things like GURPS; it’s not as though there’s a surfeit of choice for budding games designers to co-opt inspiration for their systems rules from traditional PnP games besides D&D.

Well firstly, D&D was popular at just the right time for it to be a firm favourite for the generation of geeks who grew up into the developers pushing forward the boundaries of games design today. This seems like a bit of a cop out in terms of answering just why D&D has had such an impact on computer games design, but there’s no other way around it: the geek zeitgeist at the height of D&D’s popularity ensured that the system had a lasting impact on those responsible for making systems design choices for today’s games.

dungeons and dragons motivational imageI think the other main thing to think about is randomness. Why do we have randomness in games? Why isn’t gaming totally skill-driven? If you pause to consider it, shouldn’t you hit someone in your favourite RPG by swinging your sword using the mouse or keyboard at the right time? Shouldn’t your skill as a player dictate your character’s prowess?

On the face of it, I personally would be tempted to answer yes to those questions. Now for the sake of full disclosure, I enjoy playing FPS games too so that obviously affects my perspective on the issue of skill. I think that the ideal game would require the player to actually display some ability; I find there’s more fun in that kind of thing than in pressing Mega Blow whenever it recharges.

However, there’s a problem with totally skill-driven RPG gaming and it’s this: it doesn’t fit with levels. I mean, your level is there to represent your character’s power and ability — but if the main thing which governs that is the player and not the statistics, a level 5 character could easily be far more powerful in-game than a level 25 character and if that were to be true then the level system would have lost all meaning.

Levels are borrowed from PnP RPGs because in that medium player skill is difficult or impossible to judge; how do you define skill in describing your character’s actions? In the world of video gaming though, it’s suddenly possible to include genuine displays of ability. Your character Jim-Bob might just roll a die to see whether he manages to make a particularly difficult jump in PnP D&D, but if you’re playing it on an XBox or PC then isn’t that jump’s success better determined by requiring the player to physically time the jump correctly?

As above though, whilst such things are commonly applied to simple things like jumping anything more complex tends to be left up to a random number generator (or dice, in the PnP games). The reason for this, in my view, is that the human brain is too good at learning. Inevitably, the players will face the same challenge (or a similar one) and quickly be able to overcome it in future by applying or adapting successful tactics from previous encounters.

a d20 showing a roll of 20

Dude, you rolled a 20. You rock!

In a game like Half-Life 2, the developers’ commentaries reveal just how carefully they train the player: a mechanic will be shown to the player once (or their hand held through the first instance of that mechanic). This will then allow the player to use or adapt that skill in future. In an RPG though you don’t necessarily want that, because an RPG (at least, 99% of RPGs) are about progress.

Difficulty is difficult. As a GM, I find getting the balance of risk vs capacity vs reward fairly trying sometimes. How dangerous should this activity be, to counter-balance the potential rewards whilst also not being impossible with an eye to the party’s’ current ability levels? Within the confines of a truly level-based system it’s difficult enough, but it would be fiendishly hard – if not impossible – to successfully balance for a party of different people in a truly skill-based system.

Doubt what I’m saying? Try assembling a Counter-Strike team of vastly differing abilities. If you can match that against an opposing team whilst keeping everyone equally challenged, I’ll eat my own face.

And who does that balancing? That’s actually the crux of the issue. Despite the fact your PC can now return instant search results for almost any subject you desire, despite the fact it can participate in the search for a cure for muscular dystrophy or search for an alien civilisation, despite its ability to give you the answer to complex mathematical equations in less than a second, your PC is really stupid. PC (and Macs, if you’re offensively stylish) are hardware strictly limited by software and currently that software is really, really bad at thinking.

The closest we currently have to the way human beings think in the computing field is a neural network. But this technology is just not good enough to allow your PC to make judgements. You’re basically sat at a very expensive pocket calculator. You wouldn’t expect a pocket calculator to run your PnP gaming session, would you?

The reality is that when you run a dedicated D&D game like Neverwinter Nights your PC really has no idea about whether it’s providing the right level of challenge. It’s just guessing, based on the database of possible enemies and the indexed threat level of those enemies. If that data is incorrect, your PC is blindly going to provide the party with an encounter which is of an inappropriately easy or difficult challenge.

And frankly, that’s not all. Because how do you assign a threat level to something? A critter which can paralyze its foes is of a much greater threat to a class which relies on mobility, and that’s something that a PC just can’t consider in the same way a GM can. What items do the player characters have? What are their specialisms? In what areas are they weak? These are questions integral to balance but currently these myriads considerations are absurdly hard for video games to truly consider.

A PC (or Xbox, or PlayStation, or Wii, or…) therefore has as its primary role the limiting of the player and the environment. It’s not about what you can do, but what you can’t because determining what is outside the player’s capabilities is frankly much easier than deciding what they can achieve.

I have experience in browser-based games design and in running (and participating in) PnP gaming sessions. The latter is much more simple despite its increased complexity. It’s counter-intuitive but it does make sense when you think about it: the human mind is designed to solve problems in a way that computers really aren’t just as computers are designed to handle numbers in a way that nobody can hope to compete with.

Right now video games just don’t have the access to context which allows human GMs to run a free-form campaign and so they inevitably end up being far more linear or sacrificing story to a large extent.

Pen and paper RPGs are strange: their systems are designed to constrain possibility to create an even playing field and represent character skill in an environment where player skill is either absent or impossible to judge; however the fact they have an interpreter in the GM rather than in the software layers means they are inherently far more flexible. If I want to tell my story rather than a pre-packaged story, I’d always look to a PnP RPG system.

Rulesets which by their nature bind on the PC are able in a PnP backdrop to facilitate creativity and open up new possibilities. Slavery is freedom.


George Washington is a coward

The year is 1757 and George Washington, later fated to lead the as yet unborn nation of the United States, is sat atop his horse overlooking the French Fort Niagara in what is now New York state.

He is a wise general, and through his brilliance the colonies have seized Fort Duquesne and with it opened up the Ohio valley to invasion. The French have suffered several crushing defeats to Washington, and he is now commanding a mighty army made up of line infantry, two units of light cavalry, some Native American mercenaries and a powerful contingent of artillery in the form of three units of 24lb cannon.

When Fort Niagara falls, the lower Ohio valley will be under the control of the British colonies. It will be a glorious moment and will signal the beginning of the inexorable scouring of the French from the New World. But they are not going gentle into that good night.

Washington tastes the air as across the town the French sally forth from the impenetrable bulk of Fort Niagara. The crisp October air is invigorating and Washington is pleased. He had planned for this French counterattack, and issues a command to the cannon. Thunder splits the air as dozens of heavy iron spheres are ejected towards the French lines, throwing mauled infantry into the air like leaves in the autumn wind.

The tactical insight which has previously served him so well is at play again. The forces of the British colonies are laid out in a line to Washington’s east, whilst he stands atop the grassy knoll overlooking the approach from the French across lower ground. This battle depends on his artillery, and so he has protected it. This hill is surrounded on all sides but the east by impassable cliffs, so if the French wish to silence the batteries they must fight through the entire British infantry line first.

Half an hour later and battle is well under way. The French have suffered terribly under the constant bombardment of the British cannon, and now their weakened forces are breaking upon the British lines as water on rock. It is not entirely one-sided however: as with all conflict there are casualties on both sides, and at the centre of the line the British lines of infantry begin to thin under constant assault.

There is no hope of a French victory, however. Their men are too few now, and the rigeurs of battle have taken their toll upon their morale. Even now units held in reserve by the French begin to waver, sensing that to surge forward into the range of the British muskets would be to march forward to meet almost certain death.

And yet without warning, the British are put under pressure. George Washington is under attack! A unit of peasants armed with pitch forks have seen what Washington did not: a small path winding up the western side of the cliff and they set about the great general, fighting with the ferocity that comes only from impending annihilation. His bodyguard are slain! Immediately to his left, the artillery crews continue to rain down iron on the French lines, seemingly oblivious to the fate which has just befallen their hero general.

And George Washington, future hero of the republic, founding father of the United States of America, begins to run away.  With his boots pressed firmly into his horse’s side, Washington thunders down that damned cliff path. But the sound of his horse’s shoes beating upon the ground is joined by that of many other boots. The French are running down that path too!

But they are not running to chase him down and kill him. From their recently seized vantage point they had an overview of the state of the battle, and saw before them the entire British horde. The French peasants, only moments before flushed with their triumph, have broken and are routing down the cliff path on Washington’s heels.

And so the British victory at Fort Niagara is assured, as George Washington flees in blind terror away into the forest, with a unit of peasants directly behind him, they too routing in utter fear and panic.

America. Home of the brave.

July 2018
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