I recently picked up a copy of Enslaved as a rental, after hearing that it was reasonably short if not completely wonderful gameplay.  It sounded like a good diversion, and Enslaved has the kinds of gameplay that I pref. It has melee combat, climbing through interesting terrain, and was advertised as having a strategy/decision making element.  Interesting enough to rent, so I did.

This game clearly wants to be compared with Uncharted.  Early in the game, as I’m climbing up the side of a falling, flying slaver ship, my wife commented, ” This is like that other game, the one with the train.”  She’s referring to the opening Uncharted 2 where you are climbing a train that’s falling off a cliff. It’s even narratively paced like Uncharted 2, the voice acting is pretty good, even if the  characters themselves don’t make a lot of sense to me.

I’m not going to say much about the story, except that it got me wanting to read Journey to the West. If anyone knows a good English translation with decent annotation, please leave a comment or let me know.

Uncharted 2 is basically three separate types of experience alternated in an interesting way: you’ve got your well-voice-acted cut-scenes (often very very short ones), platforming, and combat.  Enslaved has the same mix, similarly paced but doesn’t work.  If you have your game separated out like that, all the sections need to work — much like the platforming and story sections of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time worked really well, while the combat was often much harder. Sands is still a great game, since the combat was more interspersed, and the platforming really worked.

Enslaved’s combat is okay, if not inspired– it’s not hard enough to really bring the other, less straight-forward options into play (and if you do, then you lose the experience orbs you would have gotten).  It’s platforming however, is really pretty bad.  With the Prince of Persia series, I always felt like I had a character that could do things.  Sometimes what I do is context sensitive: jumping near a wall would kick jump, or run up it, depending on how I was facing.  But if I pressed the “jump” button, I always jumped. In this way I was a character that could do things, and moved around an environment which put those things into the best context.

I don’t feel that way about Monkey in Enslaved.  The ‘jump’ button only seems to work where it needs to work.  Since it’s tied into the ‘roll’ option, half the time I want to jump, I wind up rolling.  Since the environment has been built so that I don’t roll or jump off cliffs unless I can survive, often when I try to jump in a place that isn’t a good option, I wind up rolling up against an invisible wall, which is nothing like what I thought I would do.  Often I can jump just not exactly there, I need to move a few inches to the left first — and then I can jump.

I feel less like a character that can do things than like a pointer that activates an environment action.  As far as programming and level design these may be identical, but there’s a big difference in the feel.  Sure, Uncharted 2 was probably exactly like this, but I never felt like the action the environment was suggesting was different from what I wanted to do.  In that way it was ‘seamless’ and ‘fluid’ in ways that Enslaved just isn’t.

While handholds are given a bit of a glow, often the camera points away form them, except for those times when the camera is rigidly pointing exactly where I need to go (and can’t be dissuaded).  One says to me “you need to explore” — which the game encourages with masks and xp orbs — and the other says “just go this way, we’ll show you how to go” — which is earmarked by fairly (if not completely) linear game design.  It’s kind of like Enslaved doesn’t quite know what sort of game it wants to be.  If the handholds were more visually consistent, it would be better, but often I couldn’t see them without the glow, which is a stark contrast to the way they work in, say, Assassin’s Creed, or Uncharted 2.

It breaks that ‘sense of motion’ that platforming games have always had for me, even since playing Tomb Raider.  Enslaved isn’t an open world style game like Infamous or Assassin’s Creed, which allowed me to move freely through the environment always progressing and moving forward, almost mindlessly  Instead I have these moments of confusion where I don’t know where to go, nor how to get there.  I ususally know what my meta goal is — that’s laid out well, and I’m also given most of the map to look at — but the little moment to moment goals are missing.

In Uncharted 2 I often didn’t know what the meta goals were — we were just escaping or running in a direction — and mostly it didn’t matter, because I always knew what my immediate direction was, and where I was headed next.  (As an aside, the web-design book Don’t Make Me Think says that it doesn’t matter how many clicks it takes to get to something on your site, so long as each necessary click is obvious.)

I would like this game, and like the old adage — a great story can’t save bad gameplay, but good gameplay can rescue a bad story.  Unfortunately, Enslaved doesn’t really have either.

The other day, I was looking on a forum for HTC Eris users about whether we were going to get an official Froyo (Android 2.2) install.  The top post on that topic was a link to an announcement, somewhere, and the user’s inference from that that Froyo would be rolled out to us.  The following four or five comments were mostly hopeful, with one person arguing disbelief, but also hope.

The next comment after htat was from the original poster, again linking externally to an article which supported his original claim. A respected blog had confirmed that there were rumors of HTC Eris getting Froyo.   This was excellent news! The very next post was someone else saying that the source for that article was the very forum topic we were all reading right now.

That was somewhat disheartening, and the final post in that topic was the original poster wryly lamenting the fact.  Since there were no other sources, perhaps it was even less likely. [ref]And it looks completely unlikely now.[/ref]

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It seems whenever I do these post-a-day commitments, there’s always a day that I can’t make it. Part of that is that I have a huge essay that’s easily 3 times as long as a typical day’s post here (or where I try to keep it, anyway).  Part of it is that my work has moments of quiet, and moments of intense activity and today is one of the latter days.

I always feel better about the intense days than the quiet ones, even though it doesn’t give me the space to write like I’d like. I could post my monster essay today, but I want to sit on it another night, and make sure I’m sure.  It’s not games writing, so I’m more nervous about it.

I also want to write a short commentary on Enslaved, which I played about halfway through on Sunday. And I need to talk a bit more about Aspects.  That’s coming for the rest of the week, but today I’m tapped out.

Now that I’ve described aspects, and talked about them in two posts, I want to talk about why I see such potential in this.

RPGs grew out of wargames, and D&D one of the oldest, still uses a battle mat and rules to move around them.  CRPGS embraced the stats and strategies or pen-and-paper RPGs, since computers are bad at handling real “role-playing”.  We got nice numerical stats, and everything drove into some basic underlying formula that calculated our hits, or how much damage our characters do.  These things were based on modelling combat, and so it is combat which they modeled.

While CRPGs fossilized into the idea of fighting badguys and levelling up to be better at fighting badguys, pen and paper RPGs branched out and started dealing with instances where you didn’t always fight badguys.  Sometimes there weren’t even badguys, the conflicts were more nuanced, and we got different kinds of stories.  There was still conflict, and conflict resolution. There’s still a sense of your player getting better at what they do, so they can do it better — it just doesn’t have to be fighting.

Not every pen-and-paper has embraced this, D&D still often feels like there are fighting sections and role-playing sections, and while the former has lots of complicated mechanics tied into it, the latter has almost none.  Fourth Edition has changed that, but it turns that role-playing into a random dice game.

In Dresden Files RPG, a social conflict plays very much like a physical one, and there are a sort of “social hit points” which works like physical damage.  It’s supported by tasks, powers, and aspects the same way that fighting is, and it makes for a different experience. But because aspects play such a crucial role, and bringing them to bear requires some role-playing and thinking in character, the mechanics for role-play and tactical play are in alignment with each other.  Instead of looking to numeric stats, players are looking at character to determine how things will play out.

And that’s one of the benefits of aspects: by describing them in real language terms, and phrases, you bring the player closer to the character.  An avatar or other character becomes a thing with a personality, instead of a thing with a spreadsheet of stats.  It may still have the latter, and a CRPG might require that, under the hood, but properly chosen aspects can add more than just a number.

Aspects also give us another venue for story and setting, since they can be picked to add flavor beyond what a simple named stat like “Strength” or “Agility” might offer. Echo Bazaar would be an entirely different feel of game if you changed it’s aspects, but you could completely reskin it (you’d have a lot of rewriting to do) and have a different game, and feeling.  Even so, it would be possible to add sections of content that open up based on aspects, which are in turn contained to that  section, allowing for the modular creation of mini-stories.

I also think that re-framing stats as aspects opens up ways to re-frame the conflict in the game.  We don’t have to be fighting all the time.  Perhaps there are better was to represent other kinds of conflict, practice or training.  (Assuming you wanted to stick to the CRPG format at all, which is about gaining competence and power to overcome obstacles.)

More about this later this week, although I welcome comments.

Echo Bazaar was first brought to my attention by The Border House Blog. I was at first hesitant — I don’t know how may of these sorts of games I’ve played over the years — but I created an account and made it through the first few tasks.  Then I noticed something which I’d seen many time since while playing (this isn’t an exact quote of that time, but representative):

There’s been a twist in your tale: You’ve gained the Aspect A strange benefactor:1!

I went and looked at my character sheet, and down near the bottom left was a list of little factoids about my character, amongst them, that aspect.  As I’ve played, these have grown, and now it’s a formidable list.  This morning, after several days of effort, I got rid of the aspect “Troubled by Rats”.  As a reward, I wound up with a pet rat, which moved on over into my inventory.

I’m not going to delve deeply into the gameplay or style of Echo Bazaar. It’s pretty delightful and fun, and I’ve enjoyed exploring that world and setting.  I just want to talk about how they represent your character, and track where you are in the story.

Echo Bazaar has three sections on your character sheet, which should seem relatively obvious to anyone who has played an RPG before.  You’ve got some basic stats about your character: name, lodgings, a cameo and four stats: Watchful, Persuasive, Dangerous, and Shadowy. Next to that is  an inventory of items which are both equipment (which is segregated) and usable and trade items (some of which are primarily intended for sell in the eponymous Bazaar).   Finally, down the lower left-hand side, we have a list of categories, which expand out into longer lists — your aspects.

Some of these are qualities you have: I have Scandal 1, and Nightmares 7 (“Don’t let this get to 8 or something bad will happen”); I have Magnanimous 5, and Subtle 3.  These were gained by taking in-game actions, such as having a date with a devil, or saving an old lady from a gang of thugs (while I pick-pocketed her!).

Some of them, like “a visitor to the Clay Quarters 4” represent where I am in the story or “storylet”. Others mark my position in a venture or ambition, and still others represent who I have as contacts — and with the number — how strong or far along I am.   The aspects are potentially temporary — you can lose scandal or nightmares.  Some mark progress along a small goal, and go away after (and then mark the chance of success along that goal).

Echo Bazaar hasn’t gotten completely away from quantifying everything, which is probably easier and clearer than developing a set of adjectives which mirror the numeric score. Doing so makes a compromise between the player and the computer-mediator.  The advantage is that I can look at the words and they are evocative to me about what they mean and how they could be applied.

They are less flexible than the ones in FATE that I discussed yesterday, for obvious reasons.  Still, it’s a bit less scary than basing things on an array of stats, and a bit more concise than long quest text.  (Echo Bazaar does include a short one-sentence description of an aspect, for context).

Initial actions in Echo Bazaar are unlocked based only on stats, or occasionally inventory items you may have.  Later actions as you branch out depend more on your aspects, as well, leaving stats to determine success in most cases.  You could argue that everything is an aspect (You have the aspect: Has Fancy Hat: 101), or, contrariwise, that nothing is.  Yet the things Echo Bazaar calls aspects, tend to be longer than one word, and describes a relationship, or facet of your character, giving them more flavor and complexity.

Next week, I’ll write about how aspects could be used to greatly change what an RPG is like, and to give more options for style beyond kill monster, get treasure, level up.

I was introduced to aspects in FATE, particularly through Spirit of the Century and Dresden Files RPG. In a lot of ways aspects in FATE replace attributes in other games.  In DFRPG or SotC, you don’t have Strength, Dexterity or Constitution, although you can take aspects that imply you do.  The other side to Aspects is that they need to be both good and bad in order to be properly effective in the game (both narratively and game-mechanically).

Here’s a character I made for my Origins game. His name is Tom Dunn, and he’s an unwitting emissary of power, specifically for Coyote.  He’s also a bit of a thief and rogue himself, and you can download his full character sheet and description.  DFRPG characters have Aspects, Skills, and Powers/Stunts.  Skills and powers are pretty standard type things, at least as far as this discussion goes.  But I want to talk about his aspects.

Every character has a High Concept and a Trouble; these are reminiscent of the character’s class and some basic problem they have. They are unique to the character, though, and serve as their first two aspects. Tom Dunn has a high concept of “Coyote’s Catspaw” and his trouble is “But… it’s shiny!”.  His remaining aspects are

  • City Boy,
  • It just fell into my hands,
  • Wanted in 5 states,
  • Francine, dear, can you hold this?, and
  • I can get in there, no problem.

Each of these is based on some part of his life backstory, or a story he was part of.  “City Boy” because he grew up in a large city, for instance.  One actually references another of the characters, Francine.  This way we get unique characters who are all different from each other, and aspects kind of give us a feel of who they are. (The better the aspects, the better that feel. This example, IMHO is only okay.)

Not all of these are good, of course, “Wanted in 5 states” is there to put the threat of authorities on him. It could also be used by the player, who might say something like, “I can elude them because I’ve had practice ditching the cops.”   Aspects like this work as both advantages and disadvantages; our characters don’t have to sacrifice to be awesome, but sometimes their awesomeness is the problem.

The game economy in FATE is designed to encourage aspects which aren’t purely good or detrimental. If the GM compels and aspect, say by pointing out the big jewel he wants because… it’s shiny!, the player can acquiesce, and receives a fate point for that. Later, the player can spend that point to tap an aspect — their own, or one in the scene or on an enemy — to gain a significant bonus to a die roll.

A lot of DFRPG revolves around determining and invoking aspects, and it encourages a narrative approach to these.  The more flavorful the aspect is, the more it can be stretched and implied. An aspect like “It just fell into my hands” could be used to imply bad luck or excellent slight of hand.

Now, this was one of the first characters I made, so the aspects could be better, but this is what you can do with an early effort and (honestly) a minimal understanding of how these things worked. The person who played this character, had fun with some of the aspects, and others never got used.  The more evocative they are, the more they’re useful.

Of course, being a Pen and Paper RPG, aspects are very powerful at the table. Where numbers are great for being precise, natural language phrases are great at stimulating the imagination.  Put a little stress on your players and they will come up with interesting ways to use their aspects, and that is so much better than “I swing my sword at the Orc.”

Any digital game is going to lose some of this flexibility, because computers can’t quite manage that.  But as you’ll see in my next piece, aspects can add depth and intrigue to a digital game, and make a game feel more approachable to people who don’t want to see huge menus filled with numbers.

I recently wrote on Gameful that I was interested in “aspect-based gaming”.  I didn’t define it, and no one is out there asking me what I mean, but I want to write about my ideas in relation to this, as I think it opens up some interesting possibilities.

There’s more than one blog in this, but today I just want to write about what I mean by an “Aspect”.

Of the definitions for aspect from thefreedictionary.com is “a distinct feature or element in a problem, situation, etc.; facet.” This is the closest to the way I’ll be using it, and as it’s used in the games where I’ve seen it. I’ll be taking what those games do with it, and breaking that apart, and ultimately talking about how it can be  a beneficial design tool for games and content creation.

But first, some better definitions.  I’ll be using aspect to mean “a human-language phrase or sentence which describes a feature or element (or facet) of a game object.”  Where a game object is just any entity or thing in a game: a character, scene, object, or storyline.  Done right, any noun can have aspects.  This makes them akin to adjectives, and in the same since they offer potential for more flavor to gaming.  This is particularly true in pen and paper gaming, where Aspects can replace attributes with phrases that can be applied more widely, making for more color and possibility than a numeric stat can offer.

There are two games that I’m currently interested in that use aspects. One is FATE, particularly as it’s used in the Dresden Files RPG.  The other is Echo Bazaar, a web-based semi-social game similar to Kingdom of Loathing, or Facebook games like Mafia II.   Over the next week, I’ll be discussing how aspects work in these games, and then how I see them working in regular, story-based games, and how they could open up new possibilities in RPGs.

Zhenette focused her will and channeled her magic into the bit of stone in her hand. Magic flowed from the ether, through her crsystal-bound rune.  She shaped it with her intent and words, and then, just shy of triggering it, placed it in the stone.  She handed it to Lyp. “Now remember, it’s a touch spell, so..”

“Yeah, yeah,” the halfling said. “Just hand it to me.

Zhenette looked up at Ormond, who was changing a fire-protection spell, his hand on Lyp’s shoulder.  He released the spell and shrugged, giving Zhenette a half-smile.  “Next wave is incoming,” he said.  Magrite, the Dark elf sorceress who was working with them finished her own magic stone.

Lyp took it and dashed off to the traps they’d set.  The door at the other end of the small cavern shuddered as the magma monsters on the other side pounded on them.  Magrite picked up a new stone and began the chant again.  This would be the last one she could make before the fight would finish.

“Too bad these are so localized,” Ormond said.  “I could go for an ice version of burning hands.”

“You and me both,” Zhentte said.  “There used to be a spell that  sent out ice like dragon’s breath in front of the mage.  That would be perfect for this.”  To bad it had been lost, like so much else in the Shattering.

Magrite finished her spell, and Zhenette picked up the final stone of her own. The door visibly flexed, and started to catch on fire.  Lyp inserted the stones into the traps she’d built, and tumbled away, back to them. “I didn’t even know stone could catch fire,” Lyp said, her eyes wild with adrenaline.  Zhenette handed her the completed stone, and she bound off for the final two traps.

Ormond helped the two casters up, and they pulled out their weapons.  As Lyp placed the final stone, the door gave way, and two large flying monsters of stone and fire stepped through.  As they moved in the first two traps went off, releasing a burst of cold air on the monster, enough to freeze the water vapor around them.  They cried out, cooled off, but not put out.

A third monster, some sort of rock lizard stepped behind them, and let out  a gush of fire.  Lyp bound away just in time, and joined her friends, and the flying things seemed to glow with healthy warmth.

“I guess four wasn’t enough,” Zhen said, grasping her staff.

“I guess not,” Ormand said, he began to cast a spell of fire protection on the group.

The second traps went off, almost killing the two flying mephits.  Lyp let fly two daggers, knocking them down before the lizard could breath fire again.

“Lyp, can you tumble behind him?” Ormand pulled out his mace.  “I’ll try to keep his attention while you hit him with spells.  Zhenette and Magrite readied their ice spells, and nodded.

“This is so much more fun than farm duty,” Lyp said, bounding behind the fire lizard.

Foster stood leaning against the stone retaining wall.  Keelie stood on top of it, which put her head about even with Fosters.  She looked at him and laughed.  “Grass in your mouth and hat and everything. You really fit in here.”

“It’s home,” Foster said. “When I’m done I’m going to head back the family ranch and help run it.”

“Your family seemed nice enough,” she said. “Mixed household seems to work for you.”

“It’s all I’ve ever known,” Foster said. “Your family not so great?”

“Oh, they’re fine. It’s just that Dad married someone new — a dark elf a third his age. It’s weird.”

“Elves live a long time,” Foster said.

“Not as long as gnomes, Foster. She could be my little sister, and I’m only 75.”

Foster raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t know. I guess it’s not so strange to be attracted to someone of a very different age.”

Keelie looked at him, and arched her eyebrow. “Glad you didn’t say old. My grandmother was alive for the Shattering, She used to tell us about it when we were kids.  Now I think only the dragon remembers.”

“I’d love to hear those stories sometime,” Foster said.

“It’s a date.” Keelie looked out in the fields, the horses were returning from their daily run. “About time to get to work,” she said, hopping down from the fence.

Not that the work was hard. There had been one guy from that caster’s guild who muttered something about funding and water, but they’d sent him on his way, and warned the other ranch hands about him.  The horses came into the corall, and settled down for the night

“So,” Keelie said. “The ranch send you into the League?”

“Yeah,” Foster said. “Took us a while to save, but it means less ties when I’m out? You?”

“Minos Mercenary Guild. Better than being a miner, anyway.”

“Why do you need a Mercenary Guild?”

“Because we don’t always have the Adventurer’s League around to fight off magma monsters,” she said.

“So the real reason you came with me was –”

“–so I wouldn’t have to do the same ol’ same ol’.” She grinned at him.  “I get so tired of fighting fire and rock elementals, and magma mephits.  Plus, here I can have a quiet bite to eat and drink.”

“So you’re saying the rest of our team is not having such a restful time?”

“Not at all,” Keelie chuckled. “Not at all.”

Note:  These Adventurer’s Leauge posts are some idea of what sorts of things we might be doing near the beginning of our adventure, if you’d like to join us. We are still looking for a Few Good Adventurers.

Commander Bess Nightingale addressed the Silverwings. “We’ve got a couple of assignments for you to pick from. Normal rewards apply.”

The Silverwings settled in, their goal was to complete as many missions as possible, and pay back their debts so they could be full Citizens sooner, or at least make a little money out of this Adventuring thing. There were stories about some Citizens who never had to work again once they were done, and others who just barely made their time.

“The first is an easy mission, the Druids Alistair and Nessa need someone to watch over them while they join the Horse Herd in Coyn.”

“They’re doing what?” Ormond asked.

“Joining the Horse Herd,” the commander said. “That’s what it says right here, and all you or anyone else needs to know.”

“What do they need from us?” Foster asked. The half elf ranger was always interested in going to Coyn; if nothing else there were trees there.

“Guard duty mostly, not that they can’t handle themselves,” Commander Nightingale said. “It’s a bit hush-hush.”

Zhen looked away from the commander and caught Lyp’s eye. She arched her eyebrow at the halfling, who returned a half-smirk. “The other job?” Ormond asked.

“Fighting magma monsters in Minos,” she said. “There’s a dark elf sorceress, named Finistra, who has some ideas about using cold spells in traps, and needs some magical and stealthy advice.”

“That sound interesting,” Lyp said. “How much fighting in that?”

“Only a little,” Commander Nightingale replied. “It wouldn’t take all of you, if that’s what you mean.”

“Lyp and I would be up for that one,” Zhen said.

“Ormond, why don’t you go with them,” Foster said. “The druids will have their own healing. I’d like to go to Coyn, see my folks.”

“I’ll join you,” Keelie said. “So I don’t have to see mine.”

The group nodded, this would work. Splitting up would get things done faster, with more return. Pluse, it sounded easy.

“Okay,” Commander Nightingale said. “Form up in the portal room in half an hour.”

Note:  These Adventurer’s Leauge posts are some idea of what sorts of things we might be doing near the beginning of our adventure, if you’d like to join us. We are still looking for a Few Good Adventurers.