I blame Steam.  Or maybe GoG.com

Either way, it’s useful to have someone to blame.

I went a long time with a substandard PC, and played a lot of PS2 and Xbox games.  I joined GameFly and got games that way and other ways. I had been a sort-of PC gamer, and I became a console gamer.  The origins of this blog (on my poor dead computer SarahBellum) were in writing about console games — with the knowledge that the games I most loved were PC ones.   Despite this, when Oblivion came out, I didn’t have a PC that could run it. Nor Neverwinter Nights 2, or the Witcher. (One must note that this PC ran World of Warcraft just fine, thankyouverymuch).

I started doing some game reviews for other sites, and Tam and I decided I needed a slightly better computer (it was time for both of us).  I got a nice video card, enough memory, and (eventually) a copy of Windows 7.  The stagnation in monitor resolution has meant that video cards didn’t change enough to matter, and while I’ve had this computer for some time, it runs pretty much every PC game just fine.

And that’s when Steam came around.  My first game? Audiosurf — thanks to Ben Abraham and several other friends.  It was free, or nearly so one day, so I downloaded it — and the steam client it required.  Things were stable for a while, and Steam started having sales. GoG started adding older games I’d never properly played.  But it was mainly Steam that did it.  Their Christmas sale in 2009 ballooned my game list.  Again in the summer of 2010 and in the winter (although, since a lot of what was on sale was their back catalog, and I’ve bought most of that…it didn’t balloon so much last Christmas).  I’m sure there will be another sale this summer.

But, here’s the thing, many of these games are big and complicated, they take time to play and effort to stay focused with, and there are a lot of them, all sort of vying for attention.  Half the time I just play SpaceChem, or Cogs, or go to Kongregate for a small amuse-bouche game.  Kat bugs me about it when I tell her “so and so game is on sale today for just FOUR DOLLARS.”  She says, “How many of those games have you even downloaded [ed: most of them]?  How many of them have you played? [ed: almost most of them]  For any length of time?”  She adds the last because she knows what a pedant I am.  And the answer? Not even close to almost most of them.

There are several indie games on there, bought as packs or through the Humble Indie Bundle, but there are a ton of my favorite kind of game: the RPG.  A ton of them that I never played, or never got very far in or just couldn’t tackle.  They are the very model of the sort of big, complicated game I don’t try to play on a whim some night.  I need some sort of motivation, a plan or a procedure to decide what I’m going to do.  Something to keep me on one game, to keep that cacophony of games crying out to be played a bit quieter (or less distracting).

The answer that I’ve chosen is to play them alphabetically.

In fact, I’ve already started.  I finished up the very first Steam RPG on my list yesterday: Avencast. I’ll write a bit about it tomorrow.  Some games I’m not sure if they are RPGs or not, some games have sequels.  For the former problem, I’m going to try to be inclusive. For the latter, I’m giving myself an alphabetical exemption to the sequels.  I’ll intersperse them among other games as I get to them.  [Gothic is the worse offendoer — and for those who say I should have started with Arcania — Gothic 4, I can only say it makes more sense to play that after Gothic 3. I don’t intend to be foolishly consistent.]

The other other thing that I considered is that I have a lot of games (and thus, RPGs) which are not Steam games.  I have the whole Might and Magic series through GoG.com, as well as Arcanum [Which really, really should have been first.]  I’ll post the list soon, as I compile it, and I’ll fill back in as I add more games. It’ll help break up the Ds, Gs, and Ms with their Dragons and Dungeons and Gothics and Mights.

I won’t be replaying anything I finished completely (with the possible exception of M&M: Swords of Xeen), and there are a few games I don’t want to play (like the M&M’s 1-3).  There are a few games I don’t have yet, but probably want: Witcher 2, Skyrim [no probably about it], Avadon and Frayed Knights.  Din’s Curse sounds interesting, as do some other games — but I’m going to try to limit these as the goal is to play what I have.  You haven’t seen the list,yet, but there’s a good chance I won’t be done before Diablo III is out.

I’ll post the list soon, and we can discuss what’s missing — and why.  I’d be interested to hear what folks have to say.  I’m playing Arcanum now, and will have a post about Avencast up in a few days.



As I said yesterday, I abandoned doing the big rift events, and focused on leveling my character.  I killed 10 of those and 5 of that, and used this thing on that thing and fought the monster that popped out.  I died a couple of times, and leveled three or four times.  If you’ve ever been to Azeroth, you’ve seen what I’ve saw Sunday morning.

I wound up going to a city that was confusing to navigate, and got a bunch of quests, one of which was for another soul.  One of them was to pick up five pieces of paper that were strewn about the city.  Another was to talk to three people in the city.  Unfortunately it was a labyrinth, the map was confusing, and I found that I really didn’t care to do it.

There were PvP quests, and I’ve done those before, but in WAR it felt like that was what the game was about.  In Rift the story seems to be that the two sides are fighting because they can’t agree on how to fight the real enemy.  It seems like a stupid (if very human) reason to fight, so I had nothing invested in PvP (WoW feels much the same to me).  I was tired of killing monsters for random reasons and clicking on glowy things for NPCs. I was tired of that over a year ago when I quit WoW.

Rift’s advertising says “You’re not in Azeroth anymore.”  No, it’s not. It’s Azeroth’s clone.  The design document for Rift feels like “go play WoW and make the interface like that.” There are talent trees, called up by the same key as in WoW. The spells and combat feel the same, the quest are the same.  It’s another generic fantasy world.  So there’s no races called “orc” and “elf”: both sides in Rift can be sexy looking or ugly, although there’s that disturbing dark/light dichotomy that’s foolish.

The central conceit I got out of the newbie areas was a war between religious fundamentalists and scientific rebels.  Since the gods without a doubt exist, that’s intersting — and it’s dropped for the middle-level grinding.  That is just like everything you ever did in Azeroth, minus the public events.  They try to bring you into the lore, some of it is interesting, but it doesn’t feel tied into the central conceit of the game, so just feels disjointed.

And ultimately the problem with the game is this: it’s $45 plus a $15/mo subscription.  Guild Wars 2 which offers many of the same alternatives to WoW that Rift seems to has no subscription. Other games don’t sell their box at all. Even as I played the Rift Beta, I was thinking “In six months this game is going to be $7, just like Star Trek Online, or free like Champions.”  And the thing is, at least those games weren’t complete rips on WoW.

Let’s be honest: Rift is a beautiful game, it works well, I only had a couple of odd issues and one happened during a stress test of the server. It’s well polished, and fits right in its genre perfectly.  Thousands of excellent art and developer hours went into this game: and it shows.

It’s really too bad they decided to make a game just like WoW.  Because you don’t beat WoW by being WoW.

This is a bit of a spoiler for the newbie areas of Rift.  It’s also the strongest argument I can give for playing the game, so I feel justified.

Throughout the Defiant tutorial/newbie zone, you’re trying to fix the time machine that will send you back to before everything became unsalvageable.  It’s the best they can do, so when you’re ready you go up the promontory where the time machine sits, and talk to the person there who knows what is going on.  As he powers up the machine, a rift forms over it, and things start pouring out of it.

Or perhaps you climb the promontory to see one of your fellow defiants already there, fighting the things pouring out of the rift. A button flashes on your UI to “Join Public Group”  you do, and then you are in a group with that person, fighting.  You can fight and help without them, the quest is forced on you, and placed at the top of your tracker, so you always know what is going on.  At this point it’s the only thing on your list anyway.

You fight, and eventually one of the NPCs that was helping you fights the big bad of the game, Regulos, while you slip backward in time, to avert this future from ever happening.  It’s kind of epic and fun, and whoever happens on it can help, and they do.  I ran three characters through the Defiant starting zone, and once I started it and twice I helped.  One of those times I had to run it twice, because I didn’t quite have the flags properly set — it’s a beta, I’m sure they’ll make that clearer.

Eventually, you’re dumped into a wider area, where you see the twisting clouds with tentacles falling down that marks the existence of a rift.  You get a power that lets you go into one of them, and start the public/rift event which is associated with it.  I never did this, because there always seemed to be an event going on while I was in the area.

I did my first one on Thursday.  There were at least 50 people in the area, all of them working on different facets of the event — fighting invasions, protecting wardstones, and closing rifts. Taking part gets you some special currency “Planarite” which is used for quest turn-ins and purchasing specialty equipment — I never got enough to buy anything, so I can’t say what it is.  I know I could have gotten it, though.  Particularly during the beta and probably easily early in the game.

It’s easy to join a public group, and with so many people it became a raid (basically: a group of groups) and we all shared in what was going on, it seemed. Admittedly with so many people it was hard to tell what was going on.  The final boss wasn’t too complicated, as there was only one of him, but some of the skirmishes had 10-15 enemies, all of them moving around.  I was playing my warrior so it was hard to stay by whatever I was fighting.  Ranged DPS might have been easier.

I woke up really early Sunday morning — because I do, but also because I realized it would be quieter then, and I’d get to see something.  See,the problem with public events is that they’re great when an area is populated, but in general the only populated areas on a  mature MMO are the newbie area, and the top level areas.  The stuff in the middle (and by now I was getting into ‘middle’ territory) becomes a vast wasteland.  WAR had a real problem with that, not the least because WoW’s Lich King expansion siphoned off all their players, and made some of their public events impossible for solo players or small groups.

On Sunday there weren’t that many people in the zone, and the area I was trying to turn in regular quests was swarmed with elite monsters. I died twice just trying to see if I could find a healer.  I fought some, but it was beyond anything I could handle.  Now, someone started this quest, and they were probably off fighting it (they eventually won it) but they weren’t near me, and I was being overrun.  This seems like a bad plan to me.  Certainly there was no way I could solo or small group this (there were, in fact 3-4 other people around me in the same boat, dying with regularity).

Dying is just money, and not that much of it, really.  It’s the same in WoW (represented by broken equipment, Rift uses a different mechanism). It beats losing experience, like EQ did, but it’s annoying when random events invade places that are essentially ‘safe’.  And I get the feeling Rift is going to have a problem with this, once the server matures.  Guild Wars 2 has said they have a solution for that, I guess we’ll see when it comes out.  (GW2 has the advantage of not charging a monthly fee, but more about that tomorrow.)

The nice thing about public events are that they break up the monotony of killing 7 monsters, or picking up 7 things from the ground.  Believe me when I say I had a surfeit of those kinds of quests.  But they need to scale to the zone population, and be accessible to whomever is there. That may be true in Rift — maybe there were lots of high-level folks nearby, and not at my location.  On the other hand, though, this would be  great way to grief other players, starting events and then doing nothing until they’re lost.

Either way, I was ultimately left unsatisfied by these things, and concentrated on getting through the grist mill quests so that I could see something different.

The results of that, and my final thoughts about RIFT tomorrow.

So, there’s been some debate about what is a skill-based system, partially around Rift and it’s supposed skill-based system.  There’s no doubt that Ultima Online uses skills, everything you can do is based around a skill you have, and those go up and down based on use.  Contrast this with say, World of Warcraft which is a strongly class-based system.  In the latter, talent trees open up different ways of playing your character, meaning you can have a healing druid or a tank druid.  Most games have roles you can play, and your class determines how you play that role, and there’s no easy switching around in a class-based game, and much flexibility in a skill-based one (as flexible as it is to manipulate your skill levels, anyway).

Rift falls between these two, although it’s much closer to the WoW model than the UO one.  You pick one of four callings — Warrior, Mage, Cleric, or Rogue — when you create your character, and then three “souls” as you go through the newbie area.  There are several 6-9 or so per calling, and each soul has two that ‘work well together’.  Each of these becomes one of your talent trees.  As you spend points on talents, it unlocks abilities that you can use in combat.  Later, once you’re in your teens you can unlock another soul, and the implication is that you can unlock all the ones for your calling, eventually.

For my first character, my Mage Zhenette, I picked the Elementalist soul, partly because it sounded like ranged DPS, and it had a pet which helps when you solo.  It worked well with the Fire and Stormcaller souls, which I also picked up in due course.  What I wound up with by the time I was done with the newbie zone was a Mage just like in WoW.  I even had the same complement of spells, although they had different names.  Yes, I went with something that I was comfortable with, but the fact that I got the same exact result as I would in WoW was telling, and consistent with my experience with Rift.

I made a character of each calling.  Most followed this pattern.  The warrior felt the most different, so I spent most of my time playing her. It was the only character which felt like it had a different take on the MMO than WoW (the Rogue, Cleric and Mage callings all seemed to play like their WoW counterparts).  Even so, it wasn’t that different, and it wasn’t “skill based”.  Once I was locked into my talent trees, that’s the way it was, and it just wasn’t that different.

I did play her until I got the quest (at level 14) to get a new soul, although I admit I never did that quest, for other reasons.  I also bought  a “role” to see what it was, and it seemed to be a separate talent tree, which would allow me to rebuild my character with a new set of three talent trees.  I didn’t try that, instead focusing on moving forward, but it seemed a bit unique.  Although, I have heard from my WoW-playing friends that they can now have two different talent point spends so they can easily toggle back and forth between them.  This feels similar.

Tomorrow I’ll talk a bit about the one other thing that seemed to differentiate Rift from WoW, something I saw in WAR, and which I understand is in Guild Wars 2, as well: public quests and events.

Earlier this week, I finally joined the IGDA.  Some of that was to support my friend Corvus’ bid for for the board. But I wouldn’t have done it at all if I didn’t want to make and write about games.  Games intrigue me because I’m about half writer and half programmer.  Yeah, that means there’s a lot of game-stuff I’m not good at (art and music, for example) but I want to tell stories, and help other people tell stories.  And I’ve been programming computers of one kind of another since I was a teenager, back in the Dark Ages.

My first computer game was written at computer camp over two weeks, when the instructor realized there were two of us who already knew everything she was going to teach, so we sat down at our Apple ][s and typed in a multiple guess adventure game.  I was in middle school, and ironically, responsible for the art assets (I made a fire breathing dragon in lo-res graphics! and animated the fire!)  I’ve worked on a lot of half-projects,  my most recent experiments are with HTML5 Canvas, both raw and with Akihabara.

Anyway, I’ve mostly worked with free tools, they’re what I can afford. Indie’s can’t afford a lot of fancy stuff, and I’m not even an indie.  I’m just a hobbyist.  But there are some cool tools out there. There’s the Impact game engine — not that I’m sure how it stacks up against Akihabara, which is free.

And that sort of encapsulates my problem: I’ve got a bit of money, about $100 to spend, and I’d like to get something to help me make games.  That’s kind of a broad category but only having $100 sort of limits it.  I work in Windows (xp and 7) and can work with Linux tools pretty easily as well,  would prefer my output to go to as wide an audience as possible.  Web platforms: HTML5 and Flash are preferred, but ease of use and flexibility of the tool are a bigger issue.

What’s out there that I could put this money towards? What would you use or license?  Would you save the money, and get something slightly more expensive later?

I remember when the only “programming” game was crobots.  It was a game where you programmed a robot (in a c-like language, thus the name) to fight in an arena. While I was okay with that, I’ve never been a competitive gamer, and didn’t feel I had the chops to pit my code directly against someone else.  I always liked programming puzzles, and that drew me to the Incredible Machine games.

Some of those are logic-programming puzzles and some of them are physics puzzles.  The plethora of those (which included games like Angry Birds) kind of separates them out.  And while a lot of hardcore gamers are programmers, it’s a narrower market than even that.  So it’s kind of cool to find some flash game that fall in this sort of programming puzzle Genre

The first game that I ran into (which was not the first at all) is a game called Manufactoria.  It’s probably the most purely programmatic of the games, since it’s essentially about creating a Turing machine, right down to reading and writing from a tape.  I enjoyed it, although I admit there were a couple levels at the end that I didn’t finish.

That’s kind of a feature of these games: some of them are freaking hard.  They fall within my core abilities, and they force me to think, rethink, and try again.  For that reason they may be too frustrating for some people, but they’re also immensely satisfying when you finally do solve them.  I don’t feel bad I didn’t finish Manufactoria (although I may someday) but I went as far as I could at the time, and learned some things in the process.

The author of Manufactoria sites Zachtronic’s “Games for Engineers” as his inspiration. JayisGames has reviews of all the games, and links to them. Codex of Alchemical Engineering is my favorite, of them and the robot battle game the least.  I found the Russian semiconductor one to be a bit beyond me, for what its’ worth.  I’m currently playing SpaceChem, and when I finish the tutorial (or should I say if I finish the tutorial), I plan on buying it.

My main complaint about Zachtronic Institute games is that the tutorials often aren’t.  You’re expected to kind of jump in and maybe even have a basic science background before you can quite get it.  SpaceChem is better, but not perfect in this regard.  Some patience in the beginning is called for — more than modern games typically require.

I want to highlight three more games in this sort of logic puzzle game genre.  These are basically similar games,each with their own twist.  All of these games involve manufacturing something with a particular design or set of features: tiles with a particular pattern, blocks of a certain size or color, or donuts with the right kind of toppings.

The first is Tile Factory, which was made for one of the JayIsGames casual gameplay competitions.   It’s a flash game, with a decent tutorial,and is probably one of the best introductions to the puzzle/logic/programming genre as a whole.  It looks somewhat like Manufactoria, but has a different purpose and tool set.  Once you’re done with that, and depending on your setup,you might want to try the other two games.

One is The Machine, which is a downloadable game written in Unity.  Here, instead of patterned tiles you’re making cubes of various sizes and colors.  The challenge here comes from the very limited positions where you can place objects.  I bought my copy through an Impulse Game sale, but it has a demo.

Lately, I’ve been playing Rocknor’s Donut Factory, which is an iOS game (at the typical $0.99 price) which plays a lot like The Machine, with a bit more options of placement.  Here, the donuts need to be shaped, baked, and sprinkled or jelly filled.  Order matters and while there are less restrictions on where you can place items than in The Machine, often those limitations are the challenge of a level.

In searching for links I see that there’s a PC version of Rocknor’s Donut Factory, which just confirms that I don’t know about all the games in this genre.  So if you know of some that you like or want to chime in on, please leave me a note here, or drop my a line on Twitter.

I’m not picking a game of the year, instead I want to think about what games I’m playing, and what has left a lasting impression on me.  One thing I can say about the past year, is that despite having all three major consoles, I feel less like a console gamer, and more like a PC one.  I started as a PC gamer, and went to consoles because I couldn’t afford the constant upgrades for PCs, along with the games themselves.

Admittedly, we had a chipped ps2 during the close to a year I spent unemployed, and I got to try a lot of games I never would have played. I don’t do that anymore, but the desire for variety is there, so I have GameFly for the console games.  I also used their GBox service, and Blockbuster to rent games, and that’s mostly what I do on them.   The only new game that I bought for myself this year was Rock Band 3, a few others I purchased used, but most I tried and sent back.  Nothing hooked me, and I only finished a few of them (I think Uncharted 2 was one I completed this year).

Not that I’ve completed many big budget games on the PC. I have a huge list of RPGs and indie games that I’ve purchased on Steam — most of them last Christmas, and more this Christmas.  That, and two or three MMOs (DDO, Guild Wars and Lego Universe, although I added STO and Aion for 2011) made up a good portion of my time, but they aren’t what I mostly play.

What I mostly play these days are amusements. Amuse-bouches of the gaming world. Flash games, and free iOS games get some play every day.  If they aren’t good enough, it’s not a big deal, there’s another one tomorrow.  Some of them have been pretty decent, and I’ve linked them on twitter — but not written a blog post about them. It might take almost as long to write a blog post as it did to play the game.  On the other hand, I’ve finished a lot of them.

I wake up a couple of hours before I need to leave for work, and in that time I have the chance to catch up on RSS, write a bit in my journal, and play a flash game. I played Blue Knight last week. It was a very short metroidvania game, and I played it longer than I played the XBLA Castlevania game, and almost as long as I played the latest Metroid game (but not if you discount cutscenes).

In this way games for me have almost become romance novels or porn. They distract and amuse and then they are gone.  This is a bit unfortunate, I think, but it’s part and parcel of their ubiquity.  It’s not that I don’t think games can be great, I’ve just been spending more time with the easily accessible free popcorn ones, and less with the costly (in both money and time) big ones.

Not that the big AAA games have given me a particular reason to spend time with them.  A few have, certainly. Assassin’s Creed 2’s mystery kept me coming back to it to find out what was going on, to discover the secrets.  That didn’t seem to translate for me into Brotherhood, but it’s hard to say depending on what was distracting me at the time.  I’ll probably try AC:Bro later from Gamefly, when I have more time with it, but there’s no rush.

I play some of the RPG and bigger games on my PC for a good afternoon, but when I sit down to play, when I have an hour or two to fiddle about, I just load up Kongregate or Jay is Games and play a bit of tower defense or logic puzzler.  Or I grab my iPod Touch and play whatever today’s free game is. Even if it only keeps me amused for a few minutes, it was free.

If I’m getting the same thing from these appetizers that I am from the big games, then all that money spent on them is wasted.  There needs to be something more to them, and it’s just not there.

Girl got me a PS2 for Christmas, along with a copy of Shadow of the Colossus.  I borrowed Girl’s copy of Okami, and found Amplitude, Katamari Damacy , Jade Cocoon 2 and Final Fantasy X.  I spent most of Saturday playing SotC and Okami, and really connecting with them in a way I hadn’t connected with a game in a while.  Some of it is nostalgia, I know, and some is joy in mastery, since I already know how to kill all those collosi.  But something about those games was more evocative than any of the big Christmas releases was for me, and I came back to them on Sunday.  I’m looking forward to playing them tonight.

There’s a lot of games out there that I really want to play, there’s a lot of books out there I want to read.  I’m reading Name of the Rose as part of Project Eco, and while it’s thicker and more complex than a paranormal romance, I’ll read it in about the same amount of time — slower only because I’m giving it more thought, but not a lot slower.  A big game requires more time than these amuse-bouches, and I’m not sure their promise is as reliable as Eco’s.

So, I wonder a bit. Am I just a casual gamer now, or is there really nothing more meaty on offer? Maybe I’m looking to the wrong companies and places for that sort of thing?  Where is this year’s Today I Die?

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.

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.