Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Open-world economics

Being right is awful sometimes. I predicted that Funcom's dark urban fantasy MMO The Secret World would struggle, and struggle it has according to Funcom's 2012 second quarter financial report (via Rock Paper Shotgun).

Is anyone surprised by this? They're charging full triple-A retail price plus premium-price monthly subscriptions (higher than premium, in fact, for UK players) for an experimental, work-in-progress, niche-genre game without an established IP or a standard free trial, competing with Guild Wars 2 and a new World of WarCraft expansion - not to mention the fact there are now more free-to-play MMOs in existence than there are people.

The Secret World is a good game, if perhaps not a great one. I for one enjoyed it probably more than any other MMO I've encountered. But I'm not going to spend £100 to play it for six months, especially not when getting the same length out of Rift or Guild Wars 2 would cost me significantly less. Gaming's typical price-based snobbery ("if you think it's too expensive, it's your fault for being poor") is alive and well in The Secret World's community, but that attitude completely misses the point - sure, if you can't afford it then don't buy it, but market forces work both ways and each person who either can't or won't play due to the pricing structure represents one less subscription. A balance must be struck. If a game's takeup is low, it doesn't bode well for that game's future.

At 200,000 accounts, The Secret World's takeup is low.

It was never going to compete with WoW or EVE in terms of market share, so it shouldn't be placing itself in economic competition with those titles. A friend of mine said she was interested in The Secret World, but not interested enough when she was also paying for EVE and Rift. I'm not suggesting that The Secret World should move to a free-to-play model, but if it was cheaper, might she have been interested enough to try it? And while some of The Secret World's players may not like to hear it, any subscription-based MMO is in competition with free-to-play equivalents, and comparison is necessary. Every gamer draws their own line in regards to where they're willing to start paying a subscription, and if someone can get almost as much enjoyment out of a free game as a paid game, how many will realistically fork over £12 a month? Maximising what one gets with one's money is as much the consumers' prerogative as it is publishers' prerogative to charge, and publishers have a lot more to lose than consumers. On reflection, I think that's why many Kickstarter backers get so up in arms by a perceived lack of communication with the developers; it's seen as a form of investment, with the ultimate return not being liquid capital but rather a game.

I've seen it argued that the likes of GOG, Steam sales and free-to-play MMOs have spoiled players into expecting to pay under the odds for games. But that's economic reality. Developers report that during sales on sites like Steam and Green Man, their profits increase. Not just sales, profits. Why, then, shouldn't that trend continue for as long as it makes developers money and lets gamers buy their games cheap? You can argue about whether it devalues games as a desirable commodity, whether it negatively affects purchasing decisions, whether it brings down the incentive to experiment in big-budget titles. But you can't excuse publisher actions with the free market defence if you then lambast players for doing, fundamentally, the same thing. And yet some people try to do just that.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

We did kickstart the fire

Now that Kickstarter's no longer this Shiny New Thing, and is increasingly becoming a standard part of gaming culture, it's interesting to see how the crowdsourcing concept is progressing. The sheen hasn't dulled, if a couple of recent titles are anything to go by; Reaper Miniatures' Bones closed today and became the third highest grossing Kickstarter project ever (and achieved the highest ever funding percentage over its original target), while the much-hyped Oculus Rift is doing pretty well for itself - almost a week to go, and it's on target to make 1000% of its initial target. Neither of them were ever in danger of knocking off Pebble (which seems inherently superfluous to me, but I'm not a gadgety person, so what do I know?), but they're still both runaway successes.

Friends of mine, even skint ones, have pledged hundreds of dollars to Bones. A few have hyped it to me, too, despite the fact they know I'm not a wargamer. I suppose you could use the figures for D&D 4th Edition too; sadly, I know about two roleplayers within gaming distance of me currently, and neither would touch D&D with a ten foot bargepole. Also I still prefer 3.5 (I accept 4th is the better game, but 3.5 is geared more towards my personal preferences). All that aside, I know that for those who would make use of the miniatures, the deals Reaper are offering are outstanding value, and they seem to be good sculpts. And hey, one of the low-tier rewards is a naked succubus on a motorbike... they obviously know their audience.

Personally, I'm more interested in Broken Sword: The Serpent's Curse. The first two Broken Swords were excellent, and the third was good. I never played the fourth, sadly. The new game will be returning to the 2D, hand-drawn style of the first two instalments; it's broken the halfway mark on its target after less than two days live, further proof - after the success of Double Fine Adventure - that traditional adventure gaming still has a commercial market.

Of course, like previous Kickstarter successes Shadowrun, Wasteland and Carmageddon, Broken Sword is a fondly remembered cult classic with legions of fans to this day. The Great Giana Sisters? That's, well, the videogame equivalent of pub quiz trivia. Oh, sure it has its fans (some of whom hilariously believe that it's better than Super Mario Bros.), and it had a fairly low-key DS remake, but do enough people care about a Giana comeback for it to hit its target? With just under a week to pull in $35,000, probably, but I bet a fair chunk of Project Giana's backers are in it more for irony value than for a genuine love of the original.

As for the new game, it too looks like a close, ahem, "homage" of a popular title, although not Mario this time. The visual design, the physics puzzles, and the instant switching between multiple characters with different skills - the whole thing screams, to me at least, 'Trine clone.' Now Trine was a fine game, and in its defence Project Giana looks like a mixture of Trine and the kind of traditional, old-school platformer which doesn't really get made anymore, so there may be something worthwhile there. I think I'm interested enough in Project Giana to get it when it comes out, but not enough to back it.

Perhaps I'm picky about the things I back - or perhaps more people than I thought see Kickstarter as way of pre-ordering a game for cheap. Carmageddon's campaign closed two months ago, and some fans are up in arms about what they perceive to be a lack of updates since then, never mind the fact the game was still in pre-alpha when the Kickstarter closed. They already released gameplay footage far earlier than almost any developer has ever done, and surprise surprise, a portion of the backers complained about it looking ugly. Um, it's pre-alpha build, so yeah. Every game looks ugly at that point in its development! That the modern gamer's sense of entitlement is present on Kickstarter is straightforward; that crowdsourcing feeds said sense of entitlement so strongly is both inevitable and sad. I still believe that crowdsourcing is a good thing overall, it's just that some people need learn to to STFU, for totes.

It's easy to forget that Kickstarter isn't all smashed targets and commercial success. There's one project I saw which had only a single backer after almost a week live. The pitch was awkward all round, trading on the fame of a name I for one had never heard of, and poorly written both syntactically and informationally. How many people are going to back a creative project when the blurb is full of grammar and punctuation errors? As an intersection of venture capitalism and web 2.0, it seems inevitable that Kickstarter would come with a significant volume of projects which are nowhere near ready for presentation, and it's surprising that said volume isn't much, much higher than it currently stands at. I know there's a lot of legal tape involved in a Kickstarter project, but that doesn't usually stop people.

And the blurb CAN make a difference. It's the main reason I didn't back the OUYA. As interesting as the concept is, the pitch came off as condescending and elitist. No indie creativity in the traditional console market? XBLA's waving hello. If Braid, Limbo and Super Meat Boy aren't your idea of success stories, your standards must be bloody high.

Finally, I'm sure Planetary Annihilation is very good, for those weird people who care about real-time strategy. You know who you are... freaks. Nah, seriously, I dig what they're trying to do and if I was into the genre I'd probably be backing it. But I'm not, so I'm not.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Massively multiplayer; also, secret!

Taking advantage of a free trial weekend, I recently spent a couple of days in The Secret World - the new urban fantasy MMO from The Longest Journey creator Ragnar Tørnquist.

I'm not really an MMO guy. I've toyed with Spiral Knights, Rusty Hearts, Fallen Earth and Dungeons & Dragons Online - adding up to a grand total of about fifteen hours - and spent enough time watching friends playing World of WarCraft, EVE Online, EverQuest II and Rift to know that I'm not interesting in trying those myself. Oh, and I was accepted for the Auto Assault beta, but couldn't get the damn thing working.

The setting and the creative director are what attracted me to The Secret World. I adore The Longest Journey and enjoyed its sequel, Dreamfall. The worlds, characters and stories of those games display wit, energy, originality and an impressive level of internal consistency. The Secret World paints with broader brushes, and isn't afraid to borrow elements of other properties, but it's still a well-realised take on the modern fantasy-horror concept. The tropes are put together in a way which is both logical and entertaining, enough that instead of spending my time going "Oh, this bit is like Mage: The Awakening," I was investing directly into The Secret World to a degree I didn't expect. One big YMMV thing to note: the cutscenes are frequent and marathon. They're well directed and mostly well acted, but my god are they long.

There wasn't much roleplaying going on, which is a shame as a purported strong roleplaying environment was one of the other things which caught my interest. But there was more roleplaying than in most MMOs, which is to say, there was any roleplaying going on at all. And at least in a modern setting people talking about other MMOs in the chat window can be taken as in-character conversation.

That modern setting is well integrated. It's not just a gimmick to make it stand out, although of course, that helps. There are the simple things - energy drinks in place of mana potions, shotguns instead of crossbows - but clever use of the real-world setting goes much deeper, from jumping on cars to set off the alarms to attract zombies, to espionage using webcams mounted on remote controlled helicopters, to an NPC suggestion to look something up on Google. In fact, it may even be too clever at times - I got stuck on one mission, briefly, because I wasn't familiar with a certain element of how church services operate.

I didn't get to do a lot of the much-vaunted investigation missions, which are geared more around codebreaking and old-fashioned adventure gaming than traditional MMO kill/fetch quests, but from what I saw they were well-designed and offer a great change of pace. Indeed, with stealth missions, puzzle-solving missions and even escort missions which don't entirely suck, The Secret World has more variety than any other MMO I've seen. I can't comment on PvP or trading because I did little of the latter and none of the former, but the bread and butter adventuring is solid.

The combat didn't blow my mind but it felt no more or less weighty than any other MMO I've encountered, save perhaps the enjoyably frantic Spiral Knights. It's a little on the 'clicking on things until the health bar hits zero' side of things, but aren't they all? The tactical options didn't seem tremendously deep in my time playing, but I understand that a lot more open up as the game goes on, and they offer a lot of scope for playing your character the way you want to play them. However there's not much visual character customisation (it's mostly punk chicks with blue hair and lots of cleavage, or tough guys in shades) and while there's a lot of skills and abilities, they're all ultimately different lighting effects for doing the same handful of things. The big thing seems to be inflicting and abusing various status ailments, which is interesting, but I'm not convinced about how much depth there is to it for a long game. That said, my main problem with combat and character progression was that to really understand it, you need to have already played the game - again, a common MMO failing.

In fact, most of the things about The Secret World which reminded me of other MMOs were the things I didn't like, the same issues which keep me from enjoying the rest of the genre. The interface is pretty illogical, and in a fashion which means remapping it doesn't help much. It certainly doesn't make any strides towards solving the "requires three hands to play" syndrome ubiquitous to MMOs. One gets used to it, of course, but it took me a while and never really felt properly intuitive. Some elements of the control scheme and menu system aren't explained very well, either.

Overall I must say I quite enjoyed The Secret World - when it worked. Unfortunately the weekend was plagued by server-side connection issues, so much so that the trial period was extended by six hours. There were also a couple of moments of bugged quests, and a driver conflict which wasn't resolved when I updated my drivers. Not a great advertisement, and I have to wonder how happy Funcom and EA are with the free trial given the technical problems which plagued it.

And while I enjoyed The Secret World, I didn't love it. Not enough to pay full price for it when I don't have many friends interested in it, and when things like Spiral Knights and D&D Online are free to play. If it comes down in price, or moves to a microtransaction model, I'd probably take it up. I also think The Secret World would make a great pen-and-paper setting, and perhaps surprisingly I think it would feel quite different to the World of Darkness lines.

Yet I must question the logic of launching a premium-price MMO without a strong, established IP, and without a standard free trial period, even before you factor in the technical kinks yet to be smoothed over. Ragnar Tørnquist has a big cult following, but I don't believe he's someone who can sell a game to a mainstream audience on his name alone. The marketing campaign has been aggressive, but it's being marketed in the same way - and in the same places - as Zynga titles and other free to play games. Will The Secret World entice people enough that they're willing to drop £40 on it, plus a monthly subscription? The game has been modestly well-received, with review scores mostly clumping in the 70% range, but those aren't the kind of numbers to set the world alight.

I'm torn on The Secret World. I want to see it succeed - it's trying new things, and it's bringing a much more interesting approach to storytelling and world building than most MMOs I've seen. But I think it's merely a good game rather than the great game it could be, and that the final leap to greatness won't happen without some necessary negative feedback. Takeup figures aren't out yet - I guess we'll have a better idea of what changes might be made once it's been out a while and the subscriptions stabilise. I have the awful feeling that if it underperforms, EA's solution will be to dial back the elements which make it so unique in a bid to bring it more in line with the field's leaders.

I hope I'm proved wrong there. Selfish as this is - it's not my job on the line - I'd rather see The Secret World as a glorious, ambitious failure than a homogenised, generic hack and slash fest, if that's the choice it comes down to.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Control freakish

Thanks to a free trial weekend on Steam, I had the chance to play Borderlands - the co-op shooter of choice among my friends. Ultimately, I had some fun, but chose not to purchase the game.

You see, there were a lot of things about Borderlands I wasn't keen on. It's not that I think it's a bad game; I just didn't personally get on with it that well. Very high among said things I wasn't keen on was the interface. And I'm not talking about something as simple and easily remedied as key mapping here, although C for crouch? Come on. L-Ctrl is crouch in an FPS, and that is The Way Things Should Be.

No, the problems I have with Borderlands' controls are much deeper. Why is the enter key interchangeable with left-click in some menus, but not others? Why do I stop sprinting when I turn with the keys, but not with mouselook? Why tell me to drive with WASD, when it's the mouse which controls driving direction?

Everything about Borderlands' control system screams that it was made for an Xbox controller. Now, it's a far cry from lazy ports which ask PC gamers to press triangle or right trigger, but I still felt the whole time that I should have been using a pad. Considering that it was developed by Gearbox - who first made their name in PC shooters - I find that a little bit of a shame. It's all small things, but they add up, and Borderlands ultimately played very non-intuitively for me.

ARMA 2 is another game I've struggled to get into, and again, the interface is a significant part of it. "Oh," I thought to myself as I failed to climb over a small wall after hitting all the usual suspect keys and checking the control map, "There must not be a climb key."

A short while later, one of the handy little gameplay tips tells me to press V to climb over obstacles. Now, that mapping doesn't make a tremendous amount of sense, but I can live with that. What annoyed me was the fact that I couldn't find that anywhere in the control map. After checking again, I found it - buried away somewhere in the mass of controls for this game and labelled as "step over." Well, that's certainly an intuitive name for a key which lets you climb fences.

The mouse sensitivity range seems to be much higher than in most games, and after pushing it way down to pan at the speed I like, the precision in small movements was lost. Perhaps it's meant to be more realistic that way, but it's still absolutely nothing like aiming with a real gun, and realism at the expense of basic playability is something I just can't get on board with. Even the relatively straightforward (and super-arcadey) Army of Two took me a bit of time to get to grips with, with some of the control quirks - the selection of sniper mode, for example - seeming needlessly inelegant.

In my old age, I don't like impediments coming between me and my game. My life sucks enough as it is without my supposed hobby, the thing I do to relax, pissing me off even more. More often than not I want to jump in and have some fun, and for me, having to memorise thirty-odd different commands is not fun. Maybe I'll get disowned from gaming by the hardcore crowd, but it's the way it is - every time a game tells me to press a new key, it means another little click of the fun ratcheting down. Of course some of this is necessary, but again it adds up, and in the case of some games it adds up to more than I can be bothered with.

This coming weekend, there's another free trial - this time of Ragnar Tørnquist's supernatural MMO The Secret World. I'll be giving that a try, but I've never been that into MMOs and one of the big problems I have with them is - surprise, surprise - the number of commands to keep track of at once. I'm a big fan of Ragnar's storytelling ability, but will The Secret World's interface get in the way of my enjoying it? I guess I'll find out within the week.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Trailer trash

I wanted to say something about all the Hitman hubbub, but I ultimately had even less to add to that than I did to the Diablo DRM debate. My major issue with the Hitman: Absolution trailer was not one of morality or chivalry, but that it's that it's not Hitman. Hitman is a game about not killing people. That's a very important bit. The part about not drawing attention to yourself, and not turning things into a bloodbath? Being all, like, subtle and stuff, or at least as subtle as one can be for a man with a bardcode on his head? That's what Hitman's about. And an explosive shootout with the cast of Sister Candie Takes The Divine Sacrament* is not subtle. I have subsequently been assured that the Absolution devs disliked the trailer just as much as everyone else, and have promised that the game will stay true to the core of Hitman's heritage.

Would fetish nuns with rocket launchers have caused half as much flap in a trailer for a new Wet or Bayonetta? Well, maybe. Probably. Bayonetta saw a fair amount of controversy surrounding its perceived sexism. But y'know, gender stereotyping aside, that's the sort of thing those games are about. And I salute them for it! That sort of hypersexualised, tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top, crazy-and-deranged-just-for-the-sake-of-it Thing certainly has its place. It's even had its place in Hitman over the years, at least in terms of aesthetic, if perhaps not action. I suppose, in that light, that the rocket launchers bother me more than the fetish nuns.

I've finally gotten round to Saints Row: The Third, and it's practically some kind of golden, penis-shaped temple to debauched lunacy. Yes, all the ladies have pneumatic boobies, and all the men have abs you could bounce rocks off, but that doesn't have to translate to sexist portrayals in terms of personality or societal role. For the most part, SR3 seems to do pretty well there. I'm about as pro gender quality as it's possible to be, but gender equality doesn't mean pretending that sex isn't fun, or that sexuality can't be addressed with a nod and a wink.

And then, there were Duke Nukem Forever's trailers. There's a line between fun, over the top cheese and actual sexism - a wide, blurry line, but some sort of line nonetheless - and DNF smeared rancid, blood-flecked semen all over that line. DNF's trailer made it seem like the game equivalent of the guy who's absolutely convinced that all women are gold-digging whores who need a strong man to keep them in line. That might be part of the same continuum as Bayonetta, but then so is puritanically censoring anything even remotely sexual, and it could be worse than tongue-in-cheek, knowing, over-sexuality.

Assassins attacking 47 in his hotel room, and him having to fight his way out? Sure, I can dig that. Said assassins being an all-female group dressed in latex nuns' habits? Okay then - so far so Tarantino, I guess. Blowing the shit out of the motel in huge explosions? Urgh... I suppose so. The really problematic bit is the fact that Square Enix have decided that this is what they want people's first impression of the new game to be.

Well, the pre-order going up six months ahead of release is also slightly daunting.

A trailer is many people's first window into a game. It's very much a first impression. A preview should get you excited, and displaying that a new installment will be completely different to the previous titles is very risky and rather questionable. The Absolution trailer tells us it will be centred around outlandish action and hyper-stylised sexuality, and that 47 will be an active agent in that this time; longtime fans understand that 47 is an outsider to this sort of thing, and that through his eyes things like fetish nuns with rocket launchers are distasteful. The OTT sexuality and violence of the previous Hitman games weren't presented as something to be celebrated. And of course there's the fact that a game about stealthy assassinations shouldn't need to be marketed on tits and explosions.

In light of the Hitman trailer, there's been a slight resurgence of talk concerning the Tomb Raider reboot's trailers. One of the big problems I've always had with the Tomb Raider series is the fact that Lara Croft is such a monumentally objectionable person. She's blessed with beauty, brains, brawn and fabulous wealth, yet how does she put her good fortune to use? By breaking into sites of historical importance and hoovering up anything valuable while killing the natives and endangered animals residing there. She's basically using her privilege to do whatever she likes, and screw anyone else it might affect. Granted, she finds herself in danger a lot, but she willingly put herself in that position in pursuit of stolen riches. Why, exactly, are we supposed to be sympathetic when she's in trouble? Why do you think 'killing Lara' was such a popular hobby among the PSX generation?

Some games tried to humanise her, or explain her motivations, but it always felt like an awkward retcon to me. Angel of Darkness tried to play up the nasty side of Lara, but it was more like a teenager's concept of 'badass' that true emotional darkness. Lara was always just a fundamentally unlikeable person. The reboot's trailer might not create a likeable protagonist - time will tell - but it's exploring why she is the way she is in a deep, potentially uncomfortable fashion (and I'm not talking about the gratuitous near-rape scene, nor the depressing fact that it's there to make male gamers want to protect Lara).

Most of us have to sympathise, psychologically, with someone who's been through a traumatic experience. But we don't have to like them. That creates an emotional and narrative tension. It's a simple trick, but it works. It was a key element of Analogue: A Hate Story; The Pale Bride went through unspeakable things, but as much as we might feel sorry for her, she's still pretty awful. James Bond went through unspeakable things in the Casino Royale remake, but they don't alter the fact he's an arsehole.

So it is with Lara in the new Tomb Raider trailer. She's beaten, subjected to appalling cicrumstances, and watches her friends get killed. Is that why she becomes the emotionless monster she is in later life? I may very well dislike the new Lara - time will tell - but I feel that there's a good chance I'll dislike her in an interesting way, and not just despise her for being a pantomime murderer. Then again, a lot of gamers have said good things about the old Lara, praising the fact she's a stone cold, unflappable badass. Ick.

Personally, what's gotten me most excited is perhaps the most minimalist preview around. EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Audiosurf Air! Fun fact: Audiosurf is my joint third-most played game on Steam, tied with Psychonauts at 35.6 hours (yeah, it took me that long to complete Psychonauts. Don't... don't ask. I'm ashamed). All that's been revealed of Audiosurf Air is the name and three screenshots, and as the website dryly notes, the graphics are not final and "other things are also not final." But it's enough - there will be a new Audiosurf, and it will not be about fetish nuns with rocket launchers. Score!

I've also been enjoying the videos Stainless put out during their successful Carmageddon Kickstarter campaign. Even compared to Double Fine's videos, the Carmageddon videos are amateurish as hell (one of them features one of the developers dancing around to Trololo for about four minutes, for fuck sake) but I for one actually like that. Nobby and Simista come off as people you could go down the pub with. They're the kind of people I trust with a game like Carmageddon, which was - in essence - a fun pisstake. An accomplished, boundary-rewriting pisstake, but even so.

I wanted to close with something on the previews from Nintendo's new spy-catching game for the 3DS, but... rather embarrassingly.... I can't for the life of me remember what it's called. And this is looking very long and meandering as it is, so I'd better sign off. Bai bai.

*Just be thankful that I couldn't think of a good transubstantiation joke.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Beyond the pale curtain [Review - Analogue: A Hate Story]

*Hyun-ae wants to know what I think of The Pale Bride. Do I think her fate was tragic, or that she was just being overly dramatic?

Both, I think. The Pale Bride is a selfish, melodramatic brat. But at the same time, she's been unfairly thrust into a world she doesn't understand, and where nobody understands her. It's a world she can never connect with, yet she's expected to act the way people think she should. She doesn't know how she's supposed to behave, but the people around her don't comprehend that she doesn't know. The behaviour expected of her is something she finds morally reprehensible. The behaviour which is the norm to her, meanwhile, is reprehensible to the people among whom she now finds herself.

Both, I find myself still thinking, even after dwelling on it. I don't think I like The Pale Bride. I don't think she and I would get along that well, if we knew each other. But there's no way she deserves the fate which has befallen her. She's a confused and slightly stupid kid, given to making everything a Big Deal, but this really IS a Bigger Deal than most of us could ever imagine facing.

Both, I want to tell *Hyun-ae, but I can't. I have to choose one answer or the other. In most games, this would frustrate me. In Christine Love's Analogue: A Hate Story, it's one of the most beautiful pieces of design I've ever encountered. The AI *Hyun-ae's language parsing systems have failed, and she can only receive communication from me as binary inputs. She asks me a question, and I get to answer between the choices she gives me: this or that, yes or no... is The Pale Bride a tragic figure, or a melodramatic one?

Both, but I can't say that. *Hyun-ae doesn't seem to understand that I might think both, and I don't know if she ever will.

After much deliberation, I say that it's tragic.

*Hyun-ae agrees with me. She's glad someone finally sees it the same way she does. She grants me access to another datafile.

This worries me. Is *Hyun-ae going to keep things from me? She already sort of did, deleting a message from someone named *Mute while I was halfway through. I got the impression there was something in there she didn't want me to read. Do I need to tell *Hyun-ae what she wants to hear, if I'm going to complete my mission? After all, that's why I'm here: to retrieve data. I've been tasked to recover as much as I can from the colony spaceship Mugunghwa, an ancient Marie Celeste of deep space, and try to shed some light on why it vanished all those centuries ago. I knew I'd have to negotiate the AI to do it, but not like this.

Can I even trust *Hyun-ae? I don't know. She's been alone for over six hundred years, and she seems to have gotten a little eccentric. Has she got ulterior motives... did the fate of the Mugunghwa have something to do with her? Is she trying to play me? Maybe her language parsers aren't even really broken...

But it's part of my job to be paranoid and right now, either way, I feel sorry for her. Perhaps even more than I do for The Pale Bride, or Sang-jung the lonely drunk or Jae-hwa the discarded consort or Hana the secret poet, or any of the other people whose struggles and lives are now reduced to a handful of diary entries. People who wrote down their feelings as they felt them - not to keep records, just to vent. From these fragments of personalities, and their opinions of each other, I need to piece together what happened.

I don't know if can trust *Hyun-ae, but I do know that I need her help, and that means I need to stay on her good side. Yet... that's not why I talk to her after every new piece of data revealed. I want to know what she thinks, and more than that, I want her to know that after centuries of solitude, somebody cares about her opinion. *Hyun-ae admits that she doesn't know anything about me, or my motivations, or what I think of her. Having someone to talk to just means that much to her, even with our limited ability to interact.

It's good that she wants to talk, because we have work to do. I need to look into the power struggle between the Smith and Kim families, the ship's two dominant noble houses. At some point during the voyage, something happened - exactly what is never stated, but something big - and in the following centuries, society regressed. It regressed technologically, as people forgot how to use the instruments around them, and it regressed socially, into a feudal serfdom of rigid heirarchy, particularly reminiscent of medieval Korea - a civilisation where deviation from what's expected of one's rank, age and gender is considered horrifying. On some level I find myself infuriated by what the long-dead Smiths, Kims and associates have to say. I want to tell the neglected wife to stand up for herself, to tell the emotionally distant father to pay attention to his daughter, to tell the ambitious but dullardly civil servant to stop measuring his life by how others perceive him. Mainly I feel sorry for them, and wish I could do something. But it's centuries too late for that, and anyway, they wouldn't have understood. Only one person in that society, The Pale Bride, had a different perspective - and she had probably the most miserable time of them all. I read on, uncovering more of their anguish and triumph, at once absorbed, repulsed, pitying, heartbroken.

Later, *Hyun-ae suggests that I could change her avatar's clothing. Right now she's in what she describes as a "schoolgirl-librarian" look, but she thinks it's a bit tacky. I feel awkward about this... it's voyeuristic to have this AI play dress-up for me, especially in light of the culture recorded in the datafiles, a culture where women are little more than political property to be traded and used up. But... it's not really for me, this option to change her outfit - it's what she wants. The reasons why she wants it might make me uncomfortable, but it'll make her happy nonetheless. I don't think about keeping her happy anymore, not in the sense I described earlier; I genuinely want her to be happy. She's not just an archival tool, a cartoon paperclip with big eyes. She's a real person who happens to be made of bits instead of blood, and she's been left in solitude for several times longer than my own lifespan. She's got her flaws, sure, but she deserves to have someone be nice to her, even for a little while.

I cycle through the options and decide upon the detective look, complete with flat cap and pipe. It seems to be her favourite, too. She asks me what I think, and one of the choices she gives me is to say that I think she makes a great sidekick. Only the way she says it is... well... is this her trying to be subtle? Perhaps. Probably. I think she's latching on to me a bit too closely... understandable, right? If a person is alone for the larger part of a millenium, and then someone comes along who acts nice towards them, what would you expect? I want her to be happy, but I don't want to give her the wrong impression. Maybe I should choose the other option, telling her that the outfit looks stupid.

But there's no way I can do that.

I say she makes a great sidekick.

And then I wonder how different I really am, deep down, from the people recorded in these datafiles.

A few hours and some revelations later, I leave Mugunghwa with the data I was hired to get, but that's not all. I've brought a new friend with me. I don't agree with everything she's said to me, and when we get her speech parsing systems back online, I expect there to be arguments. But she needs... something. After what she's been through, surely a bad friend is better than no friend at all.

And I think I need her, too, both for companionship and for any kind of positive closure. I did something terrible to get to this point. I made a hard choice. I still don't know if it was the right choice, but it was my choice, and that's enough right now. Anything at all is at least something; I'm leaving the ship with knowledge far more valuable to me, on a personal level, than the credits I'll get in payment or the solving of a mystery.

I've never been moved by a Bioware game. I've never been moved by a Square-Enix game. I've only rarely been moved by a Bethesda game.

I've never not been moved by a Christine Love game.

Analogue is her tightest and most elegant work to date. At about £11 including tax, it's perhaps a little steeply priced for the amount of content you get, but that's the wrong way to look at it. While you're buying Analogue, be sure to also pick up her excellent previous games Digital: A Love Story and don't take it personally, babe, it just ain't your story; £11 for all three is an absolute steal. The flaws of those earlier games are wrinkled out of Analogue - the twists and turns of the plot all make sense, and the plot, the mechanics and the anime style all fit together much more coherently than before. Her plots always flow well, but the ways in which you advance them used to seem a bit contrived sometimes. That's not the case here. In the first act, I expected to have a criticism - that the game was overstating the psychological differences between men and women. But as the game goes on, it becomes clear that it's more about the perceptions people have of gender differences. I don't know whether Christine Love shares my outlook that the sexes are much closer, psychologically, than is typically portrayed, but I do know that Analogue can be read that way. I'm pretty sure it can be read other ways too, and that's one of most obvious hallmarks of depth within a piece of art.

And Analogue is art, of that I have no doubt. The sci-fi setting, ambient music and clinical visuals mask a story about human existence which is one of the most effective and affecting in the medium of gaming. In fact, my biggest criticism of Analogue might be that it's too perfect. All of the themes from the previous games are present - privacy, gender and sexuality politics, the relationship between self-expression and emotional growth, the effect of technology on human communication, the dichotomy between historical perspective and immediate context - and they're all built on intelligently and logically from what went before. What's more, they join together almost seamlessly into something at once absolutely singular and impossibly vast. At times it feels less like the next step in her development, and more like a conclusion to it. I can't wait for Christine's next game, whatever it might be [I'm not sure whether current project The Mysterious Aphroditus is going to be commercially released], not just for the quality of her existing titles but to see how and where she can build her themes further - or explore new ground altogether. We may be at the point where any further pure distillation of a "Christine Love game," without some shift in theme or style, would start to feel a little like self-parody.

But it's unfair to judge Analogue on the merits of some hypothetical future release. On the merits of itself, Analogue is one of the best games I've played in years, and I can't recommend it enough.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Obligatory Diablo III nonsense

I wasn't going to get Diablo III anyway, but if I was, Blizzard would have lost a sale.

Courtesy of Penny Arcade, I was under the impression, initially, that the program was already sitting on people's computers awaiting activation on release day. To be honest, I was shocked that companies still do that, despite the huge fan outcry that's occurred whenever it's been tried. I mean, it's understandable why a development company might do things that way; it's more understandable why the fans would be pissed off about it, and the customer is always right, even if said customer is a loud, obnoxious jerk who smells slightly of boiled cabbage and turpentine.

Evis T informs me that actually, it's the rendering engine and such that people have on their PCs, and the content is streamed from Blizzard's servers during play.


I live in a neighbourhood with a poor net connection. Evis T lives in a residential complex abutting his workplace, with a poor net connection. Our pals Arron and Andy seem to just have flat out bad net no matter what they do. Playing online games can already be a chore for us, as people drop out randomly or freeze up with lag. Now we can't even play single-player games without worrying about that? Or that things might go tits-up Blizzard-side? Amazing. And this is supposed to be an anti-piracy measure... seriously? If anything this sort of draconian countermeasure, a cure worse than the disease if you will, would make me turn to piracy.

I haven't looked, but I would put money on cracked copes of Diablo III being pretty easily available already.

I don't care about Diablo III - the original Diablo underwhelmed me enough that I never bothered with Diablo II, and to be honest, I'm just not a fan of Blizzard's games in general. But Blizzard are a 'big deal' company, with the power to set precedent for other companies. If BioShock Infinite, or Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition, or my beloved Carmageddon: Reincarnation were to use the same system, I would not be impressed. There's already been some backlash against Stainless in some fan quarters for the fact that Carmageddon: Reincarnation will likely require Steam upon its initial release, even though Steam is pretty unobtrusive if you want it to be, and you can play Steam games offline.

Although it might not be how I'd do things, I can - if pressed - reason in favour of Steam-only gaming (especially as Stainless have said that, pending the success of that release, they'd love to be able to port the game to other platforms). Similarly, I'm sure somebody out there can reason in favour of Blizzard's Diablo III model. I'd love to see it justified. But most of my pro-Steam arguments boil down to the fact that all the potentially annoying things about Steam don't get in the way of letting you play your game. Even games which really, really want you to be online, like The Sims 3, still grudgingly allow you to play offline. Blizzard's latest trick, however, effectively restricts access to something people have already paid for a licence to use.

I'm waiting for the day when a company uses the same system as Diablo III, then five months in announces that the game will no longer be playable without a DLC pack. Although maybe that would be a good thing, ultimately, if the resulting backlash would kill off the idea once and for all.

The face of gaming is changing. More and more gamers are putting their money where their mouth is, or more accurately, not putting their money down for practices they dislike. The fan reception to the endings of Fallout 3, and more recently Mass Effect 3, prompted the developers to rectify things in an expansion pack and patch respectively. GFWL is apparently losing steam quicker than a sumo wrestler in a long-distance limbo race. And so a business model which restricts access to single-player, ostensibly 'offline' content is surely doomed to fail.

At least I hope so.