Friday, April 29, 2011

Rambling - Letter Gun Fun Run

"Purple Eye" by Birthstone
Find it on DeviantArt

Of late, I have been fascinated by what I see as an interesting difference in the types of character representation found in role-playing games.  Though before I continue, I should specify that I am referring solely to computer RPGs, not table-top.  I do not believe it is possible to change what a table-top character is without fundamentally changing what the game is itself...which would pretty much make it an entirely different type of game.  Which is fine, but that's another argument entirely.

I'm also not speaking about character classes, races, skills, professions, proficiencies, powers, or abilities; those are incidental and are part of what makes the subject to which I am referring.

No, here I am referring specifically to the persona (or lack thereof) adopted when one plays an RPG on a computer (whether that be in the form of a PC, Mac, or game console).  What I see is a difference between three rather broad character representations.  The first I will call the Vessel; which is an empty collection of skills and abilities into which the player can pour their experience of the game’s adventures.  Second is the Mask; a specific character controlled by the player who yet has their own emotions and motivations that can be directed by the player throughout the game.  Third is the Personality; a fully-fleshed character over whose personality the player has no control.

The Vessel
In some ways iconic of the RPG game type (I refuse to call it a genre) as a whole, the Vessel is not a personality at all.  This type of character can be personified by the vast majority of MMO characters, the characters played in games like Baldur’s Gate, or similar games.  The Vessel has no voiced dialogue, no personality, and no motivation aside from that provided to the player through the game’s story.  Very often the Vessel has no history, though if there is one it is either rather limited or it is completely tied to the game’s story.

In favor of the Vessel, this type of character allows the player to completely place themselves into the game itself.  There is nothing between the player and the game’s interactions; when NPCs in the game speak, they are speaking directly to the player.  When events of the game happen, they are equally happening directly to the player, through the proxy that is the Vessel.  Anything that happens to the Vessel is by intent happening to the player.  In this sense, the Vessel is nothing more than an empty space into which the player can step to live the adventure.

Negatively, the Vessel can also be clearly and easily seen as the empty space that it actually is.  This can be a bad thing.  For example, when NPCs speak, depending on the quality of the game a particular interaction can involve a tremendous performance.  The NPC gives several heart-wrenching / hilarious / fascinating / engaging lines of dialogue, to which…the Vessel does not respond.  The player instead selects from a series of fully written responses, which are completely silent, and then the NPC gives another bit of dialogue.  This can have the unfortunate effect of removing the player from the events, given that they are simply watching an NPC spout lines of dialogue on specific ques.

Unless the player is in the habit of talking to the screen in response to the NPCs; but that’s another ramble entirely.

The Mask
One step removed from the Vessel, we have the Mask.  This type of character can be found in games like Mass Effect and (as far as I know) the upcoming MMO The Old Republic.  The Mask is similar to the Vessel in that the player can choose their skills and abilities as well as the character’s actions and dialogue, but differs in that the Mask generally has voiced dialogue.  There is quite often a legitimate history built for the Mask, even if it is left sparse enough for the player to fill in their own details.  What’s more, the Mask likely has motivations of their own, which may or may not be tied to the primary story or even known to the player at the outset.

The positive aspects of this character type come to bear in the emotional impact potential of a game.  Given recorded dialogue, the Mask can actually be seen and heard responding to NPCs in conversation.  This can potentially up the emotional impact of a scene, as when the NPC gives the great performance mentioned up above, the Mask can reply with an equally moving performance and the moment isn’t broken.  This moves an RPG’s conversations closer to the potential emotional level of movies, yet the player has direct control over the flow and direction of the scenes in which they are involved.  Needless to say, only games can do this, and it is unprecedented.

Yet the downside of the Mask is the fact that such a modification almost turns conversations into a cinematic experience.  While this, as stated above, ups the emotional and engagement potential of conversations it also casts doubt on the reason games are a unique medium all their own in the first place.  Much like cut scenes are an element of cinema brought over to movies (in part because, with such a young and new medium, we’re not sure what to do with it yet), giving conversations a more cinematic feel can in itself almost defeat the purpose of playing a game.  The more like a movie it ends up, the less like a game it becomes.

The Personality
Finally, on the opposite spectrum from the Vessel, we have the fully-developed character that is the Personality.  At the time of this writing I cannot think of any Personality characters off the top of my head, but I want to discuss the idea none the less.  With a full detailed history, specific motivations both known to the player and discovered throughout the story, there is nothing left for the player to develop other than to choose the Personality’s skills and abilities.  Quite often, the player has very little say over the actions of the Personality, beyond whichever standard gameplay elements may be present.

The advantages of the Personality are great both for the game developer and the player.  For the developer, specifically setting out who the character is and giving a player no control over this makes game design much easier.  This reduced complexity of existing material frees the developer to add more and more on top of that, which means the Personality offers the developer the potential to develop much more rich, intricate, and even thought-provoking storylines than can be offered by either the Mask or the Vessel without tremendously complex work that would be very easy to fuck up.  For the player, this means a game story that is potentially much more interesting, at least in terms of the character’s interaction with it.

The downside of the Personality is that it moves the character’s aspect of the game almost fully toward the cinematic experience mentioned earlier.  When a player has absolutely no control over their character’s personality, they are essentially just watching little movies between gameplay elements (or perhaps even listening to radio productions during those same gameplay elements).  This, again, moves the game away from what makes games unique.  We lose the interactivity and control, which is something that no other medium offers.

Why Do I Care?
I have been mulling this idea over in my head for several weeks now, and I still can’t decide how I feel about the subject.  One of my problems (of which there are a staggering number) is that I am very good at rationalizing an argument; even an argument that conflicts with one that I’ve already rationalized.  There are legitimate advantages for each of these three character types; I can happily play any of the three, and I have developed multiple game concepts for each.  Yet I do think this is an important topic to ponder, as a wannabe game developer, specifically because of what I talked about in the negative aspects of each character type.

See the removal of a character from the game, an empty vessel, almost leaves a hollow feeling in a game.  When there’s no character to identify with, you are removed a little bit from the scene, even if you’re technically the one the NPCs are talking to.  Yet the move toward a more cinematic feel of gameplay is, as stated, defeating the purpose of games in the first place.  I don’t want games to mimic other forms of media; movies are movies, books are books, and games should be games.  They shouldn’t be movies.  As much as I love me a good cutscene (and I really do, believe me), I would love it much more if I was controlling my character through that scene.

I tend to lean towards the Mask, but this might be a simple copout.  Being the middle ground between the two, it is possible that I have simply decided to take the safe path between the two extremes.  Perhaps this means that the Mask is indeed superior somehow to the other two, but I haven’t come to that conclusion.  Even deeper, I believe there are even multiple variations of the Mask (one closer to the Vessel, another closer to the Personality) which can again weigh a game’s standing in one direction or the other.

Is the middle ground always the best?  Are extremes better for their nonconformity, or “purity” of concept?

More importantly?  Tell other people about my work!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Rambling - Judge Fanatic Keys

So I've been thinking lately about what I like to refer to as "The Halo Event."

First and foremost, it should be specified that The Halo Event is not to be confused with The Halo Effect.  The latter is the copying of many of Halo's features into subsequent FPS games (with disastrous or wondrous consequences, depending on your opinion), while the former is something I believe affects gaming as a whole and may have changed it fundamentally.  The Halo Event is not something that I realized was even happening while it was happening, but is an occurrence that I have, I think, come to understand.

I have mentioned previously, as have many others (whose blogs to which I would link you, but I cannot currently be fucked to find the specific entries relating to this subject), that the current mainstream acceptability of games is leading to a gaming industry controlled by the casual gamers as opposed to actual gamers.  In part, this is due to the unexpected, near-blinding success of the Halo franchise.  I say unexpected because, though gamers certainly may have been excited about its development, the non-gaming world likely had no clue of its existence before it was finally released.  Yet when it arrived, it was with the force of thunder that seemed to shatter across boundaries of acceptability, and people with whom I never thought to share a single moment's conversation about video games would ask me if I had played "that Halo game."

While most casual gamers are by nature interested in casual games over major games, they can occasionally become interested in a major game.  This is due to a strange combination of the game's design not being intimidating (at least to a degree), the game's hype being built up to just the right point in just the right way, and a strange timing that I couldn't begin to identify.  Halo (as a franchise, not just the first game) seems to me that it was such an occurrence.  Things like this are what I believe push us closer to a possible future in which casual gamers steer the industry about which they don't care.

But I also think it might be a good thing, in a way.

Yes, it would be horrible if my bleak future idea came to pass.  However, without The Halo Event (it amuses me to capitalize it in that fashion), we wouldn't have a lot of things that we have today.  On a broad level, it was the event that helped bring that generation of game consoles more into the public consciousness than it previously had been (barring the "neat DVD player" that was the PS2, to some people).  Subsequently, it was the broadened realization of the varying console generations that allowed the general public to even understand there was some sort of different between the generation that exists now and the one that existed then.  On a more personal level, without Halo I fully believe I would never have been given Mass Effect; it was the success of a sci-fi shooter, and memories of playing it, that brought the market to a point where Bioware felt they would actually be able to sell a game like that.

Now I'm not laying literally everything solely at the feet of Bungie, here.  There were a great many factors to the success of the Xbox, the broadening of public consciousness about gaming, and the merging of shooters with RPGs beyond just the effects that Master Chief had on the industry.  I just happen to believe that The Halo Event, in its own small way, was crucial in helping us reach the state in which we currently find ourselves.  More importantly than all the other factors, I think this particular event is unique in that we can point to it directly.  We can say "that franchise.  That one right there.  That's the one."

The Halo Event is over now.  There may very well be more Halo games, but those who made the core saga have moved on to different fields.  Others will take up the monumental task of following in Bungie's footsteps to make much monies for Microsoft, and I do not envy their challenge.  They may very well produce great games.  Yet for all they might try, The Event as it was ended when we made our last stand on Reach.

I like Halo.  I like Master Chief, and I'm fascinated by the hero-myth archetype into which he was built.  I like the Covenant, and I love to be disgusted by the Flood.  I will miss Bungie's reign over their as-yet greatest achievement.  I am sad that The Halo Event is over, and I am curious whether its impact will lead the industry I love to a place of rage or glee.  For what it's worth, though (and as very childish as I know this sounds), I am at least pleased to have been here for the event.  It wasn't world-changing, it may eventually prove to have not even been an industry changer, but I believe it was at least significant to this young medium.

More importantly?  Tell other people about my work!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Content - Arcane Magic in the Divine Lands

Looking for more Divine Lands content?  I found some!  It was in my head.  No idea why I put it there (silly, silly place to keep things), but at least I found it.
Click here to download the Arcane classes file!

Many campaign settings treat magic with its own particular flavor.  In some places magic might be addictive, to be used sparingly at the risk of losing oneself to it.  In some realms magic is tightly controlled, specific to particular orders which govern the accepted uses of magic and the methods by which one achieves the ability to wield that magic.  In some realms, magic is even seen as being so dangerous that anyone who wields it must be kept safely away from the rest of the world, lest they pose a nigh-unstoppable danger to innocent lives.  There are still even more ways in which magic is treated throughout a great many types of action fantasy campaign settings; I just happened to list those three ideas because they are found within three of my particular favorite realms.  However, be any of that as it may, we are here to discuss how magic works in Esaria.

Magic in my campaign setting is a terrible force, both for those who anger magic users and for the magic users themselves.  It's incredibly powerful, and it was never intended for mortal use; not forbidden, just not intended that mortals would ever think to start using it.  Mortals, however, are power hungry and ambitious.  They couldn't pass up this tremendous power.  With it, they are capable of doing amazing things, forging and crushing whole kingdoms, but they do so at the risk of their own lives.  Casting a spell wrong could result in rupturing your spleen, or spontaneously shattering your thigh bone, as magic that you were never intended to use goes flowing through your body haphazardly.  Hell, you can even get in trouble by being too good.  Try to use too much magic, and you'll overtax your poor mortal body just as badly as if you had cast the spell wrong (though, in that case, whoever you cast the spell on is much more dead than they would normally be).

There are several different unique aspects to the way magic works in my realm, and that is only one of them.  I hope you enjoy this document, and I can't wait to show you more of my setting!

So, again, arcane classes in the Divine Lands!  Download them here!

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More importantly?  Tell other people about my work!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Content - Trolls!

They piss you off, they bait the forums, they slaughter villages, they're trolls!

Okay, so they don't bait forums.  At least, not that I know of.

The trolls of my setting are something of which I have always been particularly fond.  In many settings trolls have usually been ugly, stupid, clumsy, disgusting, or any combination thereof.  I wanted the trolls of my setting to be things of adventurers' nightmares, and I have always striven to make them so when I include them in the campaigns I run.  In particular, I remember one adventure in which I pitted my poor players against a troll who was far, far above their level.  This was a mean trick on my part, to be sure, but dammit I did provide them with whole barrels of oil and functional lamps with which to burn him down.  It's not my fault they didn't search the area before they went charging on with the adventure!  In fact, if I remember correctly, the group actually searched every bit of the village except where I had placed the oil and lanterns.  The difficulty of that fight was so very much not my fault.

So, again, trolls!  I hope they make a big mess of your adventuring party.  (Not in a malicious way though.)  (Much.)