Sunday, May 29, 2011

Battlestar Galactica, on Emergent Gameplay for Real

Battlestar Galactica is a board game in which three to six people work together to negotiate crises, manage political and military responsibilities, and fight off enemies in space combat. There are two sides: the humans, and their rebelling robotic creations, the Cylons. Each player is dealt a secret loyalty card. Roughly one third of the players are told they are on the Cylon team, either at the beginning of the game or part way through the game. The Cylon players must find ways to sabotage the human players' effort, yet keep from being discovered, lest the human players put them in the Brig and limit the amount of influence they have in the game. Ultimately, a Cylon player can reveal himself as such and gain access to a different set of abilities, but it's beneficial (and much more fun) for the Cylon player to remain hidden, working their evil plans while denying their true loyalty.

It's quite normal for the accusations to start flying early in the game, as the players find bits of evidence of sabotage during the course of crisis management, in which players contribute help or sabotage anonymously (though careful deduction can point to the saboteurs). Near the end of the game, if no Cylon players have revealed themselves, it's usually because they have a particularly devious plan up their sleeve, and it becomes even more important for the human players to identify and oust the Cylons. The paranoia rises as the humans near their destination, and victory for their side.

So the mechanic for identifying the traitor players is the loyalty deck, which is composed of cards that say whether or not you're a Cylon. Each player gets one card at the beginning of the game, and another one halfway through the game. If a player got a You Are Not a Cylon card at the beginning of the game, but received a You Are a Cylon halfway through, they have to switch sides immediately. Even the players have a certain trepidation about this event. The deck is constructed with enough cards so that about a third of the players will get a You Are a Cylon card.

What I really love about the game is the emergent trash talk, accusations, and analysis of player behavior. You draw Politics cards but you say you can't help us negotiate this crisis that requires Politics? You must be a Cylon. You're hoarding your Quorum cards instead of using them to improve Morale? Sounds like a Cylon to me. You just repaired the FTL Control room instead of our damaged Vipers? Toaster loving fracker, to the Airlock with you.

One time I screwed up and didn't add the You Are a Cylon cards to the loyalty deck, and everybody got You Are Not a Cylon cards. As the game progressed and we were all honestly playing for the human side, we became frantic as we realized that nobody appeared to do anything bad. The game was going quite well for us, but we became driven to find the traitors, and death threats were made over the smallest suspicious infractions; actions that were heroically helpful became reasons for indictment because of their superlativeness. I gave a few open suggestions of how a Cylon player might try to influence the game for their side, just in case one of the players was confused about what they should do, and for my efforts, the Admiral stripped me of my Presidency in a military coup. Of course, this made me think the Admiral was a Cylon. My girlfriend, who can usually guess which side I'm playing, didn't know what to think.

When we won the game and all revealed our You Are Not A Cylon loyalty cards, our fervor turned to sheepishness and shame.

It was truly the most interesting game of BSG I've played, even considering that the actual goal of winning was easily obtained (and was pretty boring without any opposition). The inter-player conflict that the game so carefully crafts was pitched to a level that the rules alone could never create (helped along by gin, tonic, and resentment - always a good time). The only problem is that now everybody suspects me of spiking the deck, and I could never get away with it again.

But it's the thought that counts.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Bionic Commando, on rediscovering old games

And, no, I mean the new one, not the old one. I picked up the new Bionic Commando when it first came out, totally psyched to see a modern remake of one of my favorite NES games, only to put it down only a few hours later, frustrated beyond recovery at the difficulty and lack of save points. I was sad and angry at the same time, and turned to easier and more accessible games of the season.

A while later, I became obsessed with Demon Souls, reveling in a game that forced me to master it, to love it for all its brutality and lack of comfortable reward schedule. I was happy and relieved to finally put it down, satiated, and turn to more friendly games. But lately, after a few months of World of Warcraft's polished caress, I've been looking for a little abuse.

Returning to Bionic Commando, I rediscovered why I initially didn't like it. The controls are just a little too difficult, and the checkpoints way too far apart. Carefully picking my way across the elevated highways strewn across Ascension City, I had a familiar feeling. Spend twenty minutes fighting the controls, die, scream in frustration at lost progress, repeat. This time do it in ten, and make it a little further. Then in five, and a little further. Soon I was swinging through floating minefields with skill, feeling like I really earned it, when I had a flashback to the sound of crows and the glow of red eyed knights... and suddenly got it.

Sometimes a game just doesn't arrive in your life at the right time, and it has to go back on the shelf, forgotten, until you're ready for it. But while my co-workers are shooting plasma bolts at space zombies or piloting sackboys around on giant cats, this week I'm happily swinging to my death and drowning by my own bionic arm.

Cataclysm, on the M's in MMO

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm has done many interesting things to the 1-15 and 80-85 level single player experience. The moment to moment gameplay has been improved all around; the quests are more interesting, the plot is more exciting, and a lot of the practical elements of travel and questing have been streamlined. However, these changes have affected the Massively Multiplayer part of MMO, and deserve some critical attention.

For one thing, it takes a lot more suspension of disbelief to engage the story. There has always been a problem in creating a believable narrative in WoW. As you return to an NPC to collect your reward for killing the bad guy and saving the town, you see another player talking to the same NPC, picking up the quest to do the same thing. It doesn't make sense, but we excuse it because of the nature of the game. There's an acceptance of multiple things happening at the same time, in multiple states of progression, like some kind of collapsed quantum universe.

However, with the expanded use of a technology Blizzard call phasing, in which the players are actually placed in different versions of the world according to what they've accomplished, the stories have expanded to make the player even more central. Now, you're not just the one who killed the bad guy and saved the town before moving on to the next self-contained segment of story, but you're a central character in eight hours of gameplay. This is cool for the player, but when you come out of it and realize that everybody else in your race had the same experience, it raises some questions about the point of MMO's in the first place. Maybe you could all have fended off the bandits of Westfall, but could you all have been the one to expose the Twilight Cult? Should an MMO be a single player experience in which you happen to be on a server with a bunch of other players having the same experience, and you just get together for dungeons and raids? Or should an MMO create stories in which players play roles that contribute to a shared storyline?

Furthermore, in Cataclysm's attempt to make a stronger single player experience, its tools for doing so have shown lacking. There are times in the Goblin starter zone where the story is advanced by declarative sentences printed in big yellow letters on the screen. Instead of doing what other video games do through cutscenes or in-game animations, Cataclysm delivers with the awkwardness of a writing student who hasn't learned "show don't tell" yet. Cataclysm does have more cutscenes, though. Some are good; I enjoyed the Goblin flight from their exploding island. However, the assault on the Vortex in Vashj'ir, where the player has to sit alone, passively, in a submarine for almost ten minutes listening to NPC's deliver emotes and Saturday-morning-cartoon dialog, is exactly the opposite of what I want in an MMO.

All this is bizarre to me, since most of the writing in WoW is a fantastic mix of high fantasy and pop-culture humor, and Blizzard is a master of constructing cutscenes and pacing gameplay. I'm not quite sure what happened, but in an attempt to create a better single player experience, it's grown some sore thumbs that would make me put down the game if there weren't such an excellent MMO behind it. However, as much as these things bug me, I still can't deny how it all still just works. Never once was I left not knowing where to go next or at a loss of things to do. The story is always in service of the gameplay, however polished or awkward it may have to be to do so.

On the multiplayer practical side, grouping in dungeons has never been easier in WoW, and yet never more lonely. Gone are the long hours of trying to get a group together, traveling there, summoning people, explaining things, and preparing for the first pull. The new dungeon finder makes it easy for people across servers to find groups and jump into an instance in minutes. However, also gone are the interactions that let you really build connections with people on your own server that you would see over and over again. Because the dungeon finder places you in a group of people you will never see again, there is no incentive to get to know each other or even say hello. It's a little sad to me, though I think it's a net gain, as it's also never been easier to find a guild that fits with your play style and personality. So it's a little harder to meet new people outside of a guild, but it's much easier to run an instance if you only have an hour to play.

Where the game still shines for me, though, is the class mechanics. I have spent the majority of my time in Azeroth being a healer, and out of the past five or six years, the mechanics of healing are the best they've ever been, which is to say they used to be pretty boring (though still fun enough for me to play for hundreds of hours). The new priest abilities provide flexibility and tactical decisions while still being fairly simple and not usually requiring more than six hotkeyed spells. While I won't stick around long enough to see end-game raids, the five man healing I've done has been challenging and fun. With the cheap and convenient dual spec system, there is no penalty for being a Holy priest, as anybody who leveled to 60 as Holy can remember.

For all my bitching, don't get me wrong; I think that WoW is the best it's ever been, though it's really a very different game than it was when it first launched. While this is to be expected and commended, it raises some questions about the MMO-ness of the world's most popular MMO. At the height of its popularity, there has never been a better time for another game to come in and redefine what MMO's should be. Until then, I'll be doing Gnomer runs with my goblin guild and spending way too much time picking flowers.