• The Illusion of Choice

    In my last few posts I have been talking about stories in games and how the best games have stories that follow the classic, epic pattern of the Hero’s Journey. The downside to this is that, despite being the “hero” of the story, as players we aren’t really telling our stories. Instead, we are simply actors in someone else’s story; improvisational actors in an outline created by someone else. Several people have given me examples of games that do allow you to affect the story. I agree that there has been some progress made in that direction, but in reality the effect of your actions is still fairly minimal. The story remains the same and your effect on that story is only an illusion. Many games have no choices at all, the Half-Life series for example. The most control you have over the story in Half-Life is choosing what weapon to use in a given encounter. There aren’t even any side branches or side quests to become involved in. You either proceed along a fixed route while killing enemies as you meet them or you simply stand around until you get bored. Just an actor following the script. Other games give you some choices but in the end they become meaningless. Most RPGs for example let you take on various quests in any order and allow you to choose which companions accompany you on most of them. (Though even there you sometimes are forced to take certain companions on certain

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  • Acting as a Player, or Playing as an Actor?

    Whenever you read a book or comic you are reading the story as it was created by the writer. You may picture the characters a certain way or hear them speaking in a certain voice but you are still seeing the creator’s story. Television and movies are the same way. What you see is the story as envisioned by the director and the characters as brought to life by the actors and actresses playing the roles, but again the story is that of the writer or writers of the script. And ultimately, the story reigns supreme. Luke Skywalker fires off the “million-to-one” shot that blows up the Death Star, Gollum steals the Ring then falls into the fires of Mount Doom and James Bond will always stop the evil mastermind and get the girl. It’s in the script. Gaming lets us play the hero of a story. Instead of Luke Skywalker, we are the one who is flying down the trench with Darth Vader in hot pursuit, we are the one on the summit of Mount Doom when Gollum makes his attack and when the evil villain announces that he expects us to die, we are the ones strapped into the death machine. But, if we are the one in the center of the action, what happens if we don’t want to, or are unable to, follow the script? What happens if I, as Luke Skywalker, miss miss my shot at the reactor port? What if as Frodo I decide

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  • The Hero with 1000 Avatars

    Think back over the games you have played for a moment and think of what your strongest memories from them are. You may remember the time you defeated a particularly difficult boss or when you finally pwned your friend for the first time, but most of these memories are probably of some particular scene or event. Maybe you remember when the resonance cascade started after Gordon Freeman placed the sample in the test chamber in the original Half-Life, when Aeris fell at the hands of Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII or when Andrew Ryan handed you his golf club while asking “Would you kindly…” in Bioshock. In short, you remember a part of the story. The first video games didn’t have stories. You were a big yellow dot running around eating little white dots while evading primary colored ghosts, or you were a short, Italian plumber trying to get to the top of a tower while a giant ape threw barrels at you. There was no story (or at least just the barest trappings of one). Instead, these games were little more than exercises in hand-eye coordination. In many ways, that is all games are today. Fundamentally, there is little difference between Master Chief shooting Covenant attackers in Halo and the unnamed ship shooting asteroids in Asteroids. Yeah, the graphics have gotten better but the basic gameplay is still evade and shoot. Hand-eye coordination. The difference is that Halo and most other modern games have stories. Tales of heroism and

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  • But I Hit the Easy Button!

    OK, so it’s been a while since I posted. Well, it’s been a really busy month or so for me. I had a major project wrap up at work. Then my wife and I took our first vacation alone together in about four years (and the computer wasn’t invited). Then I had to do taxes. Then I had more project fun at work when we had a Microsoft analyst show up for about two weeks to help us resolve some major problems we were having and I was assigned to work with him. Then my mother had what may or may not have been a stroke (even her doctors aren’t quite sure what happened) but she fortunately seems to be fine now. And my dog managed to escape from the fence for a day or so (fortunately someone found her and she’s back now). Obviously I haven’t had too much time for gaming lately but I had a need to take some time to relax and unwind. So, this past weekend I fired up Far Cry, courtesy of a Steam sale. Then, a few hours later, my wife comes in to see what I am yelling in frustration at. The problem was that Far Cry was proving to be quite difficult for me. The game is quite unforgiving. Your opponents all seem to be able to see you almost anywhere on the map and all have deadly aim. (I was once crawling through some bushes in the jungle and got

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  • Let’s Play! – Precursors (Parts 1 & 2)

    Part 1 Cadet pilot Treece Crichton crashes his ship on a hostile world, loses his colleagues (who can’t remember his name) to carnivorous plants, gets attacked by imperial robots then discovers he is in a computer simulation and that he is the One (or something). He then forgets all of it and is only able to look forward to getting into drunken brawls on a god-forsaken planet at the edge of the universe. Part 2 Newly graduated space pilot Treece Crichton finds himself on the planet Goldin where his first assignment is to shake down the local merchants for cash. Meanwhile, he plants hidden microphones in bars for a random guy he meets in a hotel lobby, listens to a street preacher who insists that the entire world is inside a video game and does everything he can to avoid his girlfriend. Just another day in Precursors!

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  • Doc Strider: Ranger of Bronze

    Excerpted from DOC STRIDER: RANGER OF BRONZE – THE CZAR OF THE RINGS (with apologies to Kenneth Robeson/Lester Dent) It was dark in Rivendell, and only occasionally did the faint light of the moon break through the clouds to illuminate the shadows which lay across the elven city. One of the shadows seemed to move and detach itself from the others. It moved quickly across a small opening, then gestured. Two other shadows slipped furtively across the opening behind it. One of the occasional glimmers of moonlight appeared and briefly dispelled the shadows, revealing three orcs. The orcs, their short swords at the ready, ducked under the cover of a building and waited for the light to pass. “I ain’t likin’ this!” hissed one of the orcs, the youngest. “Nobody said nuthin’ about infiltratin’ an elven city!” “Shut up!” said the leader of the small band. “We’s got a job to do and we’s gonna do it!” “Do you know what the elves will do to us if we gets caught?” the first began again. “I ain’t likin’ this!” “Do you know what the boss will do if we don’t succeed?” hissed the larger orc back. “Or, maybe you’d rather face the Eye.” “The Eye!” exclaimed the orc. “No! No!” “Then shaddup and do your job.” The moonlight had vanished again and the lead orc slipped off without another word. The second orc turned and gave his partner a disgusted glance then followed. “I’m just sayin’ I ain’t likin’ this.”

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  • Review – Hull Zero Three

    Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear A man awakens in a dark room to find a child pulling him to his feet and telling him to hurry. The room is freezing. There are bodies everywhere. He follows the girl who awakened him only to see her apparently killed my some sort of creature. He is alone, he does not know where he is or even what his name is. He only knows that he is a Teacher. So begins Hull Zero Three, the latest novel by Greg Bear. We and Teacher soon find out that he is on a starship, traveling slower than light and on a centuries-long voyage to another star system, and that something has gone very badly wrong. We also learn that “Teacher” is not unique. There have been other Teachers before him and all of them are dead. Will his fate be different. In many ways Hull Zero Three is about discovery and exploration. At the start, Teacher knows no more about what is going on than we the readers do. He even has trouble remembering basic words and concepts (like what those tiny points of light outside the ship are). He learns about the situation on the ship as we do. And the situation is complicated. It becomes apparently quite rapidly that the ship is damaged. Less rapidly we learn that a war has taken place, and perhaps is still underway. Teacher and the companions he finds along the way must both determine what happened

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  • Review – Echo Bazaar – Fallen London

    I have been given a commission by the Department of Menace Eradication to get rid of an infestation of Sorrow-Spiders that has overrun a building in Watchmaker’s Hill. I step around the blind beggar who is chanting outside the building and enter. The smell of rotten fruit is overwhelming. I look around the dimly-lit interior and see nothing but moldering furniture. In an earlier part of my life I would have opened the curtains to let some light in, but of course that would be useless here. Sorrow-spiders are the size of a small cat, and both armored and poisonous. The best way to deal with them, although not the tidiest approach, is to hit them as hard as you can with a hammer. I take a tighter grip on mine and step forward cautiously. Lately I have been playing quite a bit of Echo Bazaar, aka Fallen London. Echo Bazaar is a web-based, story-based game set in the city of London, which has been stolen by bats and carried far below the surface of the Earth to the Neath. It now sits just across the Underzee, a vast underground sea, from Hell and is home to the Echo Bazzar. The Bazzar and its strange masters have stolen other cities through the ages and London is the fifth city where they have made their home. The Bazaar is located at the heart of Fallen London, in the Neath, a cavern of impossible size, by the Unterzee, a tremendous saltwater lake.

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  • Review – S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat

    I crouch in a filthy drainage pipe as an Emission blasts overhead, searing the surface with radiation and twisting time and space with unknown energies. Nearby crouches another refugee; another scavenger searching for artifacts to sell for profit, or maybe a bandit preying on his fellow man for the same goal. For now though, we are the same; two rats hiding from the fury of a ship that has already sunk. I check my equipment while I wait. I am down to only a few clips for the AKM-74 I carry, I used my last anti-radiation syringe after rushing through the contaminated swamp outside trying to get to this shelter ahead of the Emission and only a few stale chunks of bread are left to make my next meal. When the Emission passes my temporary companion may simply leave our makeshift shelter. He may invite me to join him at his campfire to share a bottle of vodka. Or, he may try to kill me. Despite the dangers though, I am strangely at peace. It is as if I am where I belong. As if I am home. I am in the Zone. I shouldn’t like the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series. I’m not as good at FPS games as I used to be (and to be fair I was never really good at them in the first place) and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is an FPS game (and a very unforgiving one at that). I also tend to play games more for their stories than

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  • The Amazing Wraiths

    THE AMAZING WRAITHS Episode 3: Why Don’t You Throw Yourself in Next Time? (Rivendell to Lothlorien) Video: Montage of shots showing an ornate palace and surrounding village nestled in a valley. Camera zooms in to show a figure standing at the top of one of the towers. Phil Keoghan: Rivendell. The latest Pit Stop in a Race across Middle Earth. A Race to destroy the One Ring of Power. Teams arrived here at the end of the last leg of their journey for a mandatory rest period; a chance to eat, sleep and mingle with the other teams. Video: Scenes of teams arriving in Rivendell and being greeted by Elrond and Arwen. “Welcome to Rivendell”. Other scenes of teammembers talking to each other. Shots of Aragorn flirting with Arwen, Legolas and Gimli arguing and of Boromir staring at Frodo. Phil: Will Legolas and Gimli overcome their differences and start working together? Will Boromir continue to work with his teammate Aragorn, or will he allow his obvious attraction for the Ring carried by rival team member Frodo to sway his judgement. And, will we ever see both Gandalfs, the Grey and the White, together. Find out tonight on,┬áThe Amazing Wraiths. Opening Credits: Dramatic music plays. Quick montage of scenes from around Middle Earth. Rowing boats on the river Isen, horseback riding in Rohan, climbing among the rocks of Mt. Doom, etc. Interspersed with the images are shots of all of the teams. The montage ends with the title┬áThe Amazing Wraiths Scene:

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