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Wraith_Magus
01-15-2011, 02:03 AM
I'm making a little change to this thread, in the hopes of making it more readable and approachable, since I realize just how daunting the sheer volume of text I can disgorge in a thread can be. First, it's probably better if you click that "Display Modes" tab on the top right of this post, and switch it to "Threaded View", where you look at one post at a time, and the posts are organized as responses to one another. It should help make this seem a little less daunting when you look at these posts as being divided into little chapters on specific topics.

Beyond that, thank you to anyone who attempts to read something this long. The temptation and habit of "tl;dr" is a strong one. Also, don't feel the need to necessarily read everything before you comment. Skimming is better than not reading, and making a comment about how something makes you feel or react to a subject is better than just letting the subject sit in silence for fear of offense, at least as long as you are not trying to offend.

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Right, so, not being any sort of professional game critic, but having something to vent, I figured that I might as well dump out my perception of the game out here, where I apparently have a chance of catching the attention of the people who actually work on the game.

I'm writing this all in one go, but I'll try to make this a chronological review of my perceptions of the game, before my inevitably spinning off into tangents about what bugs I found, and ways that I think the game could have been better.

First off, I think it's impossible to say that the style choice of the game is not the first thing that strikes anyone who sees this game. The game does a good job of setting up atmosphere straight from the start, and probably the fact that I have serious heating problems at home during the middle of a very cold December and January while playing this, (having noticed and purchased this game during the Christmas Steam special offer, which I would never have seen or purchased this game without, by the way,) I have to say I had the additional advantage of having to huddle desperately to a blanket, with only my head and one hand peeking out to play this game while a blizzard rages outside. So, I'm supposed to empathize with a character trying to survive brutal cold and endless snow, you say? OK, I'm a empathizin'.

Something very odd about it, however, is that I immediately noticed that my own character's portrait choices all seemed to be drawn like those fashion model sketches. This game is apparently French-made, so maybe that's how all French people draw, and I just don't know, but it seems more than a little discordant. Call it a "Sarah Palin Effect" if you will, but it rings a little phony to have someone claiming to be a fierce, feral huntress who survives for long periods of time in the wilds who has a perfectly maintained haircut and a really nice, apparently new leather jacket (or even a dress).

Speaking of highly disconcerting, the role-playing options in this game are highly odd, as well. I started out with a weaver, since I figured that even though I could probably beat it anyway, the numerous warnings on the

Which reminds me of another thing about pop-up warnings: Why on Earth do I need to click a confirmation window on skipping the stupid intro that I only need to watch once, when I'm starting a new game EVERY time I reload the game because the game crashed, or I did something crazy like stop playing to go eat or something? It's not like I can't just ALT-F4, and restart the game if I wanted to see that intro again, so it's not like I'm missing anything if I didn't want to skip the intro. It just seems like another little pointless hurdle that is set up between the player and being able to do anything to enjoy the game.

I guess this is already tipping my hand a little, but my main problem with the game is that it's ridiculously slow.

It's slow by design: Seemingly to confirm the whole "repurposed fashion model" theory, my character does this fashionable sauntering slowly about whenever she does anything. It's understandable if your character just walks wherever when she's just going from one house in town to another, although it annoys the player somewhat that it takes so long, but if she's supposedly trying to flee invisible tormentors that are trying to kill her, then couldn't she maybe up the pace to at least a proper WALK, maybe? Worse, any time you try to use any kind of ability, it requires a slow, second-long animation of your character raising her hands to cast whatever spell it is she is doing... which is fairly absurd and annoying when all she's doing is "anticipating" some shadow's attack. (What, is she shouting at the shadow "I know you're going to nag me, but it's not gonna hurt me THIS TIME" every single time, often three times per round?) Worse still, everything that a shadow does is at the same pace, and there are generally about 12 of them around at any one point in time. Oh, and if you have a map that is larger than the screen? HAHA, sucker! The map scrolls at about one pixel per second, and the game starts lagging even when trying to do THAT as more units populate the map. And once you have scrolled to the other side of the map, you have to wait for it to scroll BACK. I recommend taking a quick break to refresh your drink or go to the restroom, since it can take a full minute at times to just scroll from one side of a map to another.

It's slow by bugs: The game likes to crash. The game doesn't let you save mid-battle. Battles take absurdly long, thanks in no small part to the sauntering. This just makes the crashes even more frustrating, as it means that a battle I spent half an hour on now requires I replay it.

But most of all, it's slow by what appears to be simply poor programming: The game takes about a full minute to load a save. Trying to load too many saves (like if I am trying to explore a dialogue tree by picking all the options available to me, and reloading to see my options) causes the game to take longer and longer with each game load, and will eventually result in a game crash, leading me to believe this game has rampant memory leaks. The game has about a full-second delay between selecting any button on the quickbar to select a skill, and actually doing it. It takes a two-or-three minute are-you-sure-it-didn't-crash long period of time in those interminably long and crash-prone multi-objective missions to update your objectives, and often actually does crash.

All this gets ahead of myself, however, as I had quite a bit of trouble with the character creation pages. You see, the game tells you that your starting choice of job is very important to the story, and that you should choose very carefully, but then gives you almost no information upon which you can base your decisions. You then have to set up your character's stats, which are pretentiously and confusingly named. One of them is "Perspicacity", which may seem like it's just a bizarre conjugation of "perception", but, since I have learned never to assume you know what a word means without looking it up, turns out to be a word that was archaic in the age of Shakespeare that means "keen perception"... So really, what was the point in not just calling it "perception" to begin with? If the only difference, besides the fact that almost none of your audience will know the word, is the "keen" part, then why do we need a number next to the stat to tell us how good that stat is? I would assume having a high number in Perception would imply a certain keenness, while a very low number would conversely imply the character not being perceptive at all. Worse, this game renames all the standard RPG stats without explaining what they were changed to when you are trying to make your character. "EP" means HP, "PP" means MP, and "MP" means Mv. Although the six stats that you can choose from have a vague but serviceable description, the description is not nearly enough to help you decide on how to build your character because you aren't given any information on how the game is played until you actually play it, and as such, can't judge the efficacy of the stats. Worse than even that, the game is inconsistent in its terminology, sometimes even slipping in words like "niveau", which is apparently (untranslated) French for level, or saying in skill descriptions that your stats are "characteristics", "features", and "attributes", all on the same page.

Humor, oddly enough, is your "armor" stat, directly reducing damage, and is not particularly useful for anything else, making it unfortunately a total waste of points past the earlier parts of the game, when enemies can deal damage far in excess of the stat's ability to absorb damage. Humor also supposedly gives you more choices in dialogue trees, but these are very few and far between, mostly seem to involve your character laughing at her own completely inappropriate and unfunny purile jokes, and since the dialogue trees in general are hollow choices which have no apparent impact on the story, is utterly useless as well.

Perception, (I refuse to call it Percpicacitilization or whatever,) meanwhile, is almost a game-breaker stat. It gives you more PP, which are actually MP, and if you want to actually do anything, you need as many PP as possible. The only problem is that it takes an entire episode's worth of levels sinking in maximum points in perception to make the PP generation of your character bump up just a single point per turn.

Willpower is basically just Constitution; Sinking points into it directly translates into more energy/Hit Points. Normally, I don't like such stats too much, as "any number greater than zero means I'm ready for action", while having more of other stats is generally more helpful, but this is one of the only stats that you can sink points into where you can see genuine bang for your buck. Plus, since so many missions are simply "get from point A to point B" or "survive for X turns", then having enough HP to simply charge through the minefields for the exit makes this probably one of the best stats.

Charisma is a fairly odd stat. It gives you a sort of evasion chance / status ailment resistance against losing your PP or MP, but it's main use is in some of the skills/spells you can gain, especially the healing spells, which, after the prologue, will give you double your Charisma in HP back, making Charisma tremendously useful if you have those spells.

Memory is the "I'm only doing this to get the Steam Achievement" stat. I mean, it doesn't really say that, but it might as well. Supposedly, this increases your experience point gain, but since you'll hit the episode experience point cap anyway, that's utterly useless, and its REAL effect is to cause a damage multiplier on all enemies that directly attack you, forcing certain types of playstyles, and making many character builds doomed to failure. I have yet to play my Volva with maximum memory character, so there may yet be a real difference in the plot, but I won't get my hopes up too high on that regard.

The sixth stat is intuition, which is generally useless on its own, as it only increases your landmine detection radius when the landmine detection spell is dirt cheap, anyway, and gives a terribly slight bonus to evasion, which is inherently unreliable, anyway. It does, however, boost the power of summon units, which potentially makes it very powerful as a stat, indeed.

Now, you could say that maybe I shouldn't be looking at this from a "powergaming" perspective, but instead from a role-playing one, but you'd be wrong, because there is apparently no role-playing impact of any of the choices in character build that you make (there is no difference I can see between having my character spend points in perception or intuition, and the touted bonus options for having humor are generally just jerk responses that I wouldn't pick, anyway), and as such, the only reasonable goal in character build choices is to make a character as best able to handle fights as possible.

This is why it's really terrible that they don't let you get a good look at your skill tree before you start building your character: Your skills are the only thing between victory and defeat, they offer radically different styles of play, and they demand very different character builds in order to play them well, and the game just forces you to blindly guess at what you should be doing without any real knowledge of how or why. Even having played for a while, I can't say how many points it will take me to plug into Perception to get another PP, and the game sure doesn't want to tell me. If the whole purpose of a character build is to give me a chance to weigh the options of one stat over another, but then you do everything in your power to stop me from making an informed decision, then what's the point? It's a totally schizophrenic game design policy.

In fact, given the way the plot works, "blindly guessing at what I should be doing" would almost be the central theme of this game, if that spot weren't already taken by "Oh God, why is this so SLOW?!"

Once I'd given up, and just tried to distribute the character points fairly evenly, so that I was only mildly screwed no matter what, the story started, and I found out that I was a woman who woke up with amnesia whose father just died. OK, so maybe she doesn't really have amnesia, but she may as well, considering how little of the story is explained to you, other than that your father is dead. According to the trailer for the game, you were returning to a village you didn't want to return to, but once I was playing, it seems like I never actually left the village in the first place. After a quick tutorial battle, I'm left to talk to all the people in town, who all have names that imply there are only a half-dozen extended families in the whole village, all with some sort of complex social background, but I pretty quickly gave up in trying to figure it all out, because you only get to talk to any given character once, and then their entire cameo is apparently over for the rest of the game, and most of them just say "Sorry your dad is dead" and leave it at that. You get multiple choice responses if you want to vainly hope that this game will let you role-play, but since there are absolutely no ramifications to your choices, that's pretty much just a pipe dream. I just repeatedly cried at people because apparently you get a trophy for being a crybaby, and there was no reason NOT to be a total jerk to get it. This was actually somewhat tricky in some cases to get, as there is one house where a guy apparently is trying to keep you from getting into his back yard to talk to the woman back there, leading me to falsely believe there was some sort of intrigue going on. In any event, trying to pry some information out of him was fruitless, but it did give me the option to say that I would just go home to my father, after which he replied that I couldn't because my father was dead, which was him walking directly into my carefully laid trap, as it gave me the opportunity to cry AND make him feel bad, so yay for pointlessly being a petty, emotionally manipulative b**** because it gets me a Steam achievement! (In fact, laughing at the absurdity of that exchange was probably the only part of the dialogue in this game I actually enjoyed.)

As for the main plot, it's just as opaque as anything else. At first, it seems like your character hated her father, and ran away, and that maybe he "performed non-consensual relations upon" some other girl, but then the main character seems to cry and mope too much about him dying for her to totally hate him, which just makes the whole thing even more confusing, since she's apparently so wracked with guilt that her guilt is literally manifesting itself and trying to kill her in Kafkaesque fashion. This is obviously leading up to some "deep, dark secret" and a repressed traumatic memory, but all I can say is that it better be "non-consensual sexual relations" and/or murder (a phrase I hope I don't have to say very often in the future), because if all this traumatic buried memory crap is about someone stealing your character's dolls when she was a kid, I'll just get violent.

In any event, most of the people you meet hate you for reasons that aren't explained to you, and which, frankly, I don't particularly care about after a while, since I never get to see them more than once, anyway. Apparently, it's just a world filled with jerks.

Also speaking about apparently having amnesia, my character, as a weaver, was apparently an apprentice to one of the other characters, but I actually conversed with her once, and then went through most of the prologue before I actually realized that she was actually supposed to be my tutor because the game didn't even bother to tell me these things. Further, there were two other girls that I talked to randomly, which I at first inferred were actually my character's younger sisters or something from what they said, but which were apparently just her co-workers, but to me, as a player, they were just strangers, and I only got a chance to talk to them once, anyway, which just makes me wonder why the game can't be bothered to just at least leave me a note to tell me some of these important things, like who I am, or what I'm doing here...

*** Trimmed for length ***

Wraith_Magus
01-15-2011, 02:05 AM
Review, Part 2:

In any event, interspersed with all this talking, the game apparently saw fit to occasionally put me into fights when walking near certain buildings.

The battles are the potential bright spot of the game, as well they should be, since it's pretty much the "game" part of the game. Now, apparently, looking over the forums, some people had some trouble surviving the first "survive 15 rounds" missions, but I don't see how, as these battles were all completely straightforward from my perspective.

Enemies are functionally invincible (being just your own doubts or something), and so the game takes on more of a strategic approach to conflict resolution: You have to look at the simple, predictable movements of your enemies, and your own simple, predictable abilities, and plan your moves out in advance, using odd powers like repelling an enemy or reducing the most threatening enemy's damage to survive.

The most important aspect of planning, however, is probably only intuitive to someone who games as heavily as I do, however, and that is exploiting the extremely stupid AI routines. The most basic and useful exploit is that, if the AI cannot find a route to stand adjacent to its target, it will simply not move at all, meaning that in many early maps with narrow chokepoints, all you have to do is get yourself purposefully trapped with a single shadow filling in the chokepoint, and you will have reduced the enemy attacking you to a single threat. Then, you just have to hit it with the "Anticipation" power that reduces the enemy attack power as many times as you can, and punch "end turn" until the turn counter is filled up, and you've won the quickest, easiest battles in the game.

If a shadow temporarily blocks a path, but another path, which follows a very long, circuitous route is open, then the shadows will all stop moving towards you, and even go backwards if necessary in order to go towards the new path.

With these two combined, it becomes very important to be aware of the enemy's turn order as soon as possible, so that you can know which enemy's movement will trip up another enemy's movement.

To even further confound the enemy AI, however, you have the potential ability to summon new decoy units to protect you. "Fairy Tale" is just one of twelve paths of skills you can get, but it might as well be the only one, it is so useful, although I will get into that more in the next section. Using a fairy tale is fairly useless until you can get its upgrades that make it cheaper and recycle quicker, but once you have it, it becomes your one-stop-shop for AI exploitation. The enemy AI will chase after any "ally" unit instead of you if the ally is closer or equidistant to your enemy compared to you at the start of their turn. This does not count if there are walls in the way, and once an enemy has picked a target for their turn, they will not switch to a new target until their next turn, or their first target is dead, and will not use up any more movement points even if they do switch targets, and will not attack at all if they cannot attack their chosen target. This makes creating decoy fairy tales, and then using the Repulsion ability to push them behind walls that send your enemies chasing after them for several turns essentially hand you your victory on a silver platter.

In fact, you can pretty much divide up your enemies into four categories: One is just a minor nuisance that harasses you to little effect, and can be completely defanged if you just use the Anticipation power, another is monstrously powerful, but with short range, slow movement, or some other "just stay away from it" limitation, the third is pretty much an annoying pinball enemy that pushes you around on the map, while the fourth is functionally just a land mine with a pretentious name to relate it to the other shadows. All but the first one is easily tricked with Fairy Tale, as the pinball enemies will happily bounce your Fairy Tale wisp around instead of you, and the slow, powerful enemies will waste one or more turns taking down just one of your wisps. Only the harassing enemies pose a threat, and the humor stat and Anticipation can handle those, in general.

To give an example of how these AI exploits work, in one fight in the prologue, there is a scene where you have to prevent any enemy from clearing a chokepoint for some arbitrary number of turns. Beating the mission is as simple as using your Repulsion ability on the first unit in the turn order to set him up to hit the chokepoint entrance, which blocks the movement of all the other enemies. This means the other enemies just sit there, instead of supporting their ally, or moving towards the objective. Since it moved two or so tiles per turn, just repulsing it back two tiles every turn kept it from ever clearing the checkpoint, and all the other enemies were nothing more than windowdressing that could never take a turn, making that THE easiest battle in the game.

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Anyway, you can apparently have companions on your journey, although I only got to see what I assume is the only one you can get in the prologue/first episode, which is a crow that, if you payed attention, was in all of your previous battles, watching you, somewhere (and I spent a while trying to click him or interact with him in vain, only to find he just joins you without you having to do anything at the end of the prologue, making me paranoid that I missed something). Being as this game has Norse goddesses, I'm assuming this probably means we're going to eventually find out this is one of Odin's pet crows, or something, but he doesn't have much purpose for the part of the game that I was playing, except to be a prop for a new game mechanic. This introduces a friendship/romance system... which seems rather odd, considering it's a crow. In fact, the game pretty much just forces a few conversations with the crow upon you, and lets you choose some blatantly obvious "do you want to do well at this game, or fail?" type decisions upon you. Selecting "slap the crow" or "yell at the crow" prevents you from getting the bonuses to friendship that give you bonuses in battle, which means that, like all so-called "decisions that have consequences" where one of the things you can decide is obviously superior to the other, it's not really a decision at all, it's just a pitfall for someone who doesn't know what they are doing to be unable to do the best they can. It might as well be the aforementioned "do you want to do well or fail?" question, which is not really much of a decision at all.

In any event, to add to the confusion, apparently, picking the "hmm... I might as well bring the crow, since I can eat him later" choices apparently does as much or more than any other choice to raise the "romance" stat on the crow... which apparently means I just found one very kinky bird. (I hope that thought disturbs you as much as it did me.)

Now, maybe I'm wrong about having those romance values maximized always being good for you, and there's some sort of nasty surprise in store for me if I try to get crow's romance values maximized, and he turns into my secret dream ♥♥♥♥♥♥ guy later, but that is actually even worse from a game-making perspective, because it just means I'm being punished for not having read a guide or having played through the game before to be able to make a proper decision in the first place. The only thing worse than having a false decision is a trial-and-error gameplay false decision, since it just means you have to either let the guide play the game for you, or you just have to skip through text as though it is the chore the game has become to sit through the game all over again to get to the path you wanted to be on.

This brings me to the second episode of the game, which is called Episode One.

The plot for this entire episode can be summed up like so: Your character walks from point A to point B while continuing to have to resolve fights at regularly scheduled intervals.

Seriously, the plot takes a total nosedive at this point, and I think the problem stems from the original storymapping of this game. Now, I understand the whole "it's a mystery" aspect of this, but if you're going to sell a game in episodes, then every episode has to have some kind of plot. In the mystery genre, that means that you need to reveal some part of the mystery, and that basically means

In any event, the game in this episode consists of moving one spot along the map, then having your watch apparently hit "Fight o'Clock", and demand that you hit the sleep button to get into a fight before you could go on to the next place where you could get into the next fight. To add to the boring repetition, the game seems to completely abandon the notion that the shadows are some sort of internal mental struggle of the character, and are just nameless shadows attacking you just because the game demands you get into fights every time the clock strikes Fight.

To be even more insulting, the game even makes you fight through the same battle more than once, which just smacks of plain laziness on the part of the designer. I mean, it's OK to have a boring stretch in the plot to signify a long journey, I guess, but at least give the player some interesting puzzles to solve to keep the player engaged. Rehashing the same maps tells the players you just didn't care enough to make a proper episode to sell them.

Of course, in one of these fights, you're supposed to carefully circumnavigate some hidden landmines while some pinballers bounce you into those mines, and some harassers ineffectually chip at your health, however, I found that the easiest way to solve it (in just three turns, no less,) was to simply repeatedly repulse the pinballer near the goalline, then charge through the landmines while relying on healing spells to make up for the damage. TAKE THAT, REHASHED MISSION THAT ONLY EXISTS (twice) TO PAD THE EPISODE OUT!

Speaking of fighting, though, the game has a nasty hidden surprise at the start of the first episode: You know how your ability to play through the game is completely dependent upon your ability to build up your character? Yeah, they radically alter many of the skills you rely upon without giving you any warning, once again completely defeating any ability you might have to plan ahead and strategize. The absurdly useful Fairy Tale skill is taken from having no cooldown and costing 5 PP to now having 2 cooldown and costing 0 PP with its two upgrades. The healing spells get massively buffed. There are other changes to other skills, but those are the ones I had, and noticed most.

The Fairy Tale skill thing might not seem like much, but you have to keep in mind how I was abusing that skill to begin with: The last mission of the prologue (which gives you an Achievement for beating without ever losing more than 10% HP), I only took damage from stepping on one unavoidable landmine because of Fairy Tale. At 5 PP per Fairy Tale, and infinite uses as long as I had PP, I could distract the harassers and pinballers in the first section by dropping two Fairy Tales per turn. At the next section, where I had to step on seven specific tiles, and there were, at first, no enemies, I simply burned a few turns creating extra Fairy Tales to distract the enemies while I completed the objectives, and once I started, I generated two more Fairy Tales per turn, while the enemy shadows could only kill one or two per turn, and I had the advantage of several turn head start upon them. The first two shadows were not even halfway through my circuit by the time I had stepped on all seven shadows.

This all adds up to a fairly compelling reason as to why you should nerf the spell in the first place, as it makes the game laughably easy, but the thing is, you have to warn the players when you change this stuff.

You see, this game is sort of like having to play chess, but against a player who will suddenly declare, after you are just about to get Checkmate, that you didn't actually take out the king, but the king's wimpy younger brother, and that the REAL king has just arrived with his might green chess pieces, and expands the chess board out to reveal that you are now completely surrounded and outmaneuvered. The entire basis of Chess is the ability to plan out your moves in advance to achieve goals that require plenty of forethought and planning to achieve, and suddenly having someone rewrite the rules out from under you every five minutes just makes you want to throw up your hands in surrender.

In fact, this "surprise, you are attacked by a whole new faction" thing shows up plenty of different ways in the game: You can seemingly achieve an objective by evading shadows, and making your way to a goal, only to have that goal say "Haha! Sucker! You need to go back where you came from, and I'll also spawn multiple massive-damage shadows at point blank range, and not give you another turn or movement points back so that there's absolutely nothing you can do to prevent catastrophic damage on this turn. You should just note what tile triggers this utter BS, and restart the battle with foreknowledge of this trap, and plan accordingly, the way that any GOOD game would have prepared you for this in the first place."

There's also the whole skill buy system, where you have to purchase a skill plus two or three upgrades just to make the skill go from expensive and horribly weak to gamebreakingly powerful, meaning you have to make a serious commitment to a certain direction on the skill tree early on, but all of the upper-tier skills are hidden from you early on, making your choice, once again, completely uninformed in your first game.

To put the icing on the cake of this episode is that the dialogue is even more incomprehensible in this section. You only get to talk to a grand total of about eight people, and only the crow you get talk to more than once, so you'd think they'd try to make it interesting, but no, instead you get utter gibberish.

The third hut had by far the least comprehensible part of this game's dialogue, where your dialogue choices let you get angry at the crow, which makes them mad for you being abusive of the animal, which is somewhat understandable, but any other choices will also make them angry at you for "lacking compassion"... over what, they never so much as bother to say. They're just strangers that hate you on sight for no comprehensible reason. It's just the game heaping verbal abuse on your character the way that the game heaps tedium abuse on the player.

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Finally, I last played this game (as of writing this) when I finally got to a point near the end of the first (but really second) episode, when I have to "pick one of three paths", because sometime around running from the first ghost to the second ghost, then to the third ghost, then back to the second ghost, then back to the third, the game had apparently loaded so many sprites (probably about 200, if the land mines count as sprites, too, and they probably do), the game just simply refused to keep working properly. I could alt-tab out of the game, I could even access menus in the game, and because it would "pause" running the battle, the game would run fine, which means that the game was not caught in some game-killing bug so much as it simply was using up a processor-murdering amount of resources on my computer. I get the sneaking suspicion that this game does some serious programming no-no, like uses multiple threads per sprite, and after 200 units, which the game fails to properly garbage collect, there are probably something like 2000 threads being run, causing the game to just be permanently stuck switching threads, because it's specifically just the fight that stops working, caught mid-turn trying to figure out how to use the mine-detection power.

I know that there's a chance that the actual programmer will read this, and I'm probably going to be hurting feelings and all, but this is seriously a game-killing problem caused by sloppy programming, plain and simple. Now, maybe I'm a little misguided, and maybe it's Adobe AIR's fault, (wouldn't be too shocking, really,) but this is something that needs to be addressed to make this game playable, and it's not really a bug, per se, either. This code just needs to be optimized, as there is no reason a game this light should be using up so many system resources.

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Maybe I'll pick this game up again later, maybe I won't, but I've got plenty of other games to occupy my time for the time being. Ultimately, it's a game I'd LIKE to like, but it just won't let me. It has some interesting parts where the game is a bit puzzle-like, but the interest in the puzzle dims when the same solutions are used every single time, the AI is so limited, and worst of all, the glacial pace of the game just undermines any fun that may have been found with an ever-mounting sense of frustration at why every single turn takes over a minute to complete, and a battle a half-hour to complete, when you managed to look at and solve the puzzle that a map provides in the first minute, tops, while the rest was just waiting for the computer to catch up with you.

For now, though, this post is getting long enough, (and I have spent long enough typing it,) so I will continue it in another post.

Mangatome
01-15-2011, 10:16 AM
This is obviously leading up to some "deep, dark secret" and a repressed traumatic memory, but all I can say is that it better be ♥♥♥♥ and/or murder (a phrase I hope I don't have to say very often in the future), because if all this traumatic buried memory crap is about someone stealing your character's dolls when she was a kid, I'll just get violent.

I lol'd. :D
You didn't like LOST, didja?


Now, maybe I'm a little misguided, and maybe it's Adobe AIR's fault, (wouldn't be too shocking, really,) but this is something that needs to be addressed to make this game playable, and it's not really a bug, per se, either.

I thought about that too.
Could explain why everything is slow (even the Steam Overlay UI).
But you're right this needs to be addressed.

Wraith_Magus
01-15-2011, 04:57 PM
Improved Storytelling:

Alright, as is unfortunately somewhat common for me when I get into making one of these avalanches of text, I actually got myself a little disorganized (I need an editor!), and forgot something I wanted to go into a little more depth about earlier, but I suppose it works just fine over here, as well.

Back a few pages of text up there, I mentioned that in this game, you play a woman who has amnesia, but not really amnesia, it just might as well be amnesia from the point of view of the player, because nothing about the plot really is explained to you.

You see, amnesia (and it's close cousin, the Fish Out of Water story,) is such an overused storytelling gimmick because it serves a valuable purpose to storywriters: When an audience (I am using "audience" interchangeably with "player", here, since it would be a "reader" if it were a book, in order to signify this applies across media,) first looks at a work, they know nothing about who the main character is, and why they are where they are or doing what they are doing. Amnesia handily makes the character in the story not know who they are or why they are there, which means that they are going to go look for someone or something to tell them who they are, and as such, there is no information available to the character that is not available to the audience, and it gives a solid narrative reason to explain to the character why there are flying cars and jetpacks around, and how they work, to a character that nominally belongs in that time period, and should really know this stuff already. (The same can be said for a fish out of water: A kid sucked into a magical alternate dimension has to be taught the ins and outs of this new world, and how it is different from his own reality.)

The problem with Winter Voices is that it doesn't explain what the character knows or feels or remembers about anything, doesn't explain her relationship to the village, who she knows or doesn't know, who are her friends or enemies, who her mother was related to in all these intermingled clans, or anything about the plot. You don't even get the "I couldn't come up with an elegant way to tell you this, so here's a crib sheet for who you know and what you know" encyclopedia type of plot device to tell the story about the plot. Instead, you're just dumbly acting through the story, following the mission objectives that pop up over your head without really understanding how or why anything is happening.

Further compounding the problem is that the parts you actually DO have control over, which is to say, the fights against the shadows and your character growth, have almost nothing whatsoever to do with the actual story, especially in "Those Who Have No Name", which I can only assume refers to your enemies, because they are now all called "Whatever the Nameless", and attack you for no reason, and defeating them accomplishes nothing but being able to move on to the next fight. It's just one fight after another because each episode has to fill its quota of a certain number of fights in order to keep some semblance of balance and pacing, even if balance and pacing are completely absent from the story, although I'll get into that spiel in the next section.

You see, this exacerbates the problem I was mentioning before about how I can't understand how any of the characters are related to one another, or what their motivations are, or why I should care about one character over another. Eventually, it just dawns on you that NONE of the characters matter, because you only ever get to talk to them once, and none of their plot threads, if there ever were any there to begin with, will ever be resolved, or if they will, won't be resolved until several episodes down the road, by which time you will have completely forgotten who they were.

You see, in order to make one of those plots where you keep the audience guessing work, you need to make the audience want to care about the mystery. If you completely lock them out of the mystery, and give them no reason to even want to try to decipher what is or isn't a clue, you have to invite the audience to speculate, and reward that speculation. At this point, the characters are just pelting me in a constant barrage of the same faces with different names, only one or two lines of text, and no comprehensible motives or ways to interact with them in any meaningful way other than clicking through their text trees at maximum speed to get the EXP bonus.

(And no, I never even wanted to watch LOST, thanks in no small part to the fact that the hyping of the series, but also because it was of the sort of X-Files like speculation generator type of show that I knew would only throw out random plot threads without ever bothering to tie them together, because they know they could never live up to the expectations of the audience to make a compelling narrative, so they just played coy straight to the end. Again, it's a matter of making me want to care about the narrative, and if you just make everything DRAMA all the time with everything hyped beyond all reason, without any part of the plot actually being revealed, then I, as an audience, am just being asked to supply the storyteller with the story he SHOULD have written in the first place by speculating for his amusement, instead of having the storyteller amuse me with his cleverly designed plot, which is presumably what I paid my money to receive.)

======

Alright, with this section, I want to start with what I might call my more "constructive" criticisms, in that I'm actually talking about alternatives that I think would directly improve the game.

Going back to the whole "I stopped caring about the plot, and just plodded from point A to point B to point C only to be told to go back to point B and then back to point C, only the game crashed before I got there" mess, I'd like to talk about how the story is paced.

You see, the second/first episode of this game is really a major letdown when I'm playing it because this game's story isn't being paced very well. When you play an episodic game, it should be like reading a series of novels or a series of movies or even an episodic television show: Each episode needs to have some sort of self-contained three-act storyline within it. A set-up where the conflict is laid out before the audience, a build-up of tension as things escalate up to a climactic scene at the end, and then a release of tension, and a set-up to the next story in the chain.

Now, while I wasn't exactly raving about the story in the Prologue, I was at least slightly interested in trying to figure out who, exactly were the actors in this play, and what their motivations were. I was frustrated by my inability to figure out who or what was important, and what was just some random extra character in the Prologue. When I talked to some of the characters that the Volva told me to talk to after I had randomly wandered around the village, they started name-dropping Leila a few times, and Leila appeared in the Seid, leading me to believe that she was a very important character in the plot, and I wracked my brain to try to remember what Leila had said in the one and only conversation I was actually allowed to have directly with her, and I couldn't remember at all, since she was indistinguishable from every other random villager at the time that I talked to her. Reloading the game from a very early save, I managed to talk to her again, and found out why I couldn't remember her at all: She basically said nothing but the same "Hi, sorry your father's dead," line, exactly as half the characters I talk to do, except that she stutters a little while doing it. In Episode One, however, it is revealed that I probably shouldn't have bothered trying to figure this stuff out, because none of the characters have anything more than a quick bit part, apparently. Everything that happened in the prologue apparently doesn't matter, except for the dead father and the need to go to some village on the far side of the map because the game won't proceed until you jump through that particular 20-hours-of-heavily-padded-gameplay hoop.

You see, if pressed to sum up the Prologue's plot, it would be that "a woman is tormented by phantasms of her own repressed memories that may or may not be her own imagination or Kafkaesque manifestations of a literal dream world after the death of her father, and leaves her secretive village filled with resentful jerks to find answers". It falls a part a bit in the telling because of how difficult it is to discern the important parts from the fluff, but at least it manages to be a compelling premise for a story. If pressed to sum up Episode One, however, all I can say is, "She starts walking, and solves some obligatory phantasm fight puzzles to pad out the game."

It not only serves to make Episode One just a chore you have to complete (and pay $5 separately to complete) to get to the resolution of the questions generated by the Prologue, but it generally also serves to dash all the hopes I had that I would get satisfactory answers to those questions in the first place, as it strikes of that same Chris Carter Effect (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheChrisCarterEffect) problem that kills so many drama series for me.

What I think the problem stems from is that this whole game had it's storyarc plotted out from the start, which is certainly all well and good, but that after the "introduce the conflict" part of the story was taken up by the Prologue, Episode One (and very likely two and three as well) are taken up by "She keeps walking until she gets to the point where she can actually start resolving some of this plot."

In order to keep the story going, you need to have those build-ups and climaxes in every individual episode, which, since this is a story fundamentally built around a mystery, means you pretty much have to work from the basis of starting each episode with the audience asking a question, and then answering that question at the end of the episode, but doing so in a way that it just leads the audience to ask another question at the end of that episode that gets answered in the next episode. You see, that way it rewards the player's attempts to solve the mystery by giving them some sort of accomplishment, in the form of revealing more of the plot, even if it wasn't particularly as fulfilling as they might have hoped, since it reveals more plot still remains to be uncovered.

Let me give an example of how to make episodic content where every episode specifically ends on the resolution of a question that the audience is asking:

The Game: You wake up with no idea who you are or why you are here.

Player: What, amnesia? That's an old and overused plot device!

The Game: Shut up, we're using it for a good reason, we promise, now just get up and look around unsteadily and try to get out of the burning wreckage.

Player: Burning wreckage? What happened here, anyway?

The Game: You're trying to find that stuff out, that's what the amnesia's for.

Player: Well, is there anyone else around to ask, or did someone leave a note or a computer on, or something.

The Game: Nope, nobody around, and the computers are all dead, and by the way weird, alien critters are attacking you now.

Player: AAA! Don't wanna die, that would make this narrative really short and sucky!

The Game: Yeah, sure, let's assume you jump through whatever arbitrary hoops are set up to pass as a test of your combat skills because we're just focusing on storyline here, fourth wall be darned.

Player: All right! 100% victory, achievement unlocked!

The Game: Yeah, whatever. Now then, you find bits and pieces of information about some sort of experiment with teleporters and such from, let's say some datalogs strewn about System Shock or Bio Shock style between running away from alien critters with fights to make the game not just a really expensive e-book.

Player: Oh, so this whole thing is like Half Life, and aliens crawl out because of an experiment gone wrong that I was involved in? DARN THEM! THEY BLEW IT ALL UP! THEY BLEW IT ALL UP!

The Game: HAHA! Time for reveal number one: You didn't open the portal to the alien bug dimension, you were a scientist trying to close the gate letting the alien bugs spill through, and the portal was already open!

Player: What? Then how did it open? And why did the closing the gate thing result in an explosion, anyway?

The Game: For that, you have to pay me five more bucks and play Episode Two.

Player: ... OK, you dirty bandit, I'll let you have my money. Now tell me!

The Game: Well, as soon as you fully clear the wrecked parts of the facility, you find out that everything in the world is covered in alien bugs tearing things up.

Player: Oh no, Earth is destroyed! A horrible plot twist like that would be shocking if it didn't happen in about one third of all the sci-fi stories ever written!

The Game: Yeah, yeah, keep your socks on, you smarmy jerk, you see, it isn't Earth. It's a pretty barren planet, except for some science facilities.

Player: Oh, so the portal was opened to here, then? We're going all Stargate with the plot now?

The Game: Why does everything have to be "like something" to you? Anyway, LOOK OUT! You're getting attacked by alien invaders!

Player: But I'm already being attacked by alien invaders...

The Game: No, no, different alien invaders.

Player: OK, so what are they like, and how are they different from the bugs?

The Game: They're human. And they want to kill you.

Player: Why are humans the invaders?

The Game: Because - DUN DUN DUUUUNNNN! You're actually an alien!

Player: Oh, snap!

The Game: Yes, snap, indeed! You are an alien remade to look like, and think you are a human!

Player: Wait, didn't the really cheesy "drama" remake of Battlestar Galactica do that one?

The Game: STOP THAT!

Player: Sorry. So, right, why am I remade into being a human, and why are humans invading?

The Game: That requires episode three: Mo' money, mo' episodes!

Player: Yeah, yeah, I bought the next episode already, now answer my questions, game!

The Game: Right, so the humans opened up this portal to this world, and you're trying to pass yourself off as a human to explain to them how important it is that this portal is shut down before--

Player: --Oh, wait, if I'm an alien in an artificial body, can I do neat things like cyborg upgrades?

The Game: What? Um... Yeah, sure, I guess, go upgrade some stuff for the next few fights.

Player: I want a jetpack!

The Game: Look, just buy your upgrades, I'm trying to explain the plot.

Player: WHEEE! WHOOOSH! WAAAHAHAHA!

The Game: HELLO! PLOT! OVER HERE!

Player: What? Oh, yeah, sure, just let me perform a flying strafe attack on another 100 enemies... aaaaand done!

The Game: Right, so you have to shut this portal down, before something bad happens.

Player: Why, what's going to happen? Wait, am I one of these bug aliens, or what?

The Game: No, you're another kind of alien, and the bug aliens are created by reckless portal use, and if you don't shut the portals down, they will destroy both your world and Earth.

Player: Oh, hey, that kind of makes a lot of sense... Wait, that means that we're getting near the end of the game, if I'm actually getting straight answers to my questions instead of just more stupid plot twists.

The Game: Yeah, well, it would have been longer, with more reveals to better demonstrate how to set up a string of reveals that keeps the player going along, but I realized these posts are going to be War and Peace if I don't start explaining things faster.

Players: So, what, I just have to shut down the portal, and give those darn humans a lesson on not messing with things they don't understand, because aliens are hippy peace lovers, and humans are stupid and wreck everything, just like in Avatar--

The Game: --I said stop that!--

Player: --So I, the alien, have to save humanity from itself by closing the portal. By doing what, exactly?

The Game: Traveling back in time and shooting JFK from the Grassy Knoll to let the Illuminati faction working against him, led by LBJ, stop the portal research project.

Player: Now you're just being capricious.

The Game: Whimsically so, but anyway, it's the end of the game, so hey, let's roll credits

Anyway, the point of all this, once again, being that you need to keep the player asking questions, and to keep them asking questions, you need to demonstrate that they will be answered before the player forgets what questions he had asked in the first place.

======

I'm going to cut this one here, as well, and continue with the two other "constructive criticisms" that focus upon the gameplay aspects (strategy/puzzle gaming and roleplay gaming separately) in another post, since I seem to be capable of really TL-ing my DR this weekend.

I'll probably post it tommorow.

Wraith_Magus
01-17-2011, 11:32 PM
Improved Strategy/Puzzle Gaming:

Alright, having talked about how to improve the story on this, I want to spend the last bit talking about improving the gameplay portion of this game.

First, I want to talk about this game as a puzzle or a strategy game (which are functionally the same thing, provided it is a turn-based strategy game), and in talking about that, there are two separate points to be made.

Half the failing of this game as a puzzle is that it's generally just too simple. That doesn't mean it's necessarily "easy" or "hard", or, depending on how much you screw up your character building, potentially even "impossible", the problem is that the puzzle just doesn't have enough moving parts to make the player sit and stare at it for very long before they come up with the best solution that their character can provide for any given problem thrown at them: Generally speaking, it's the exact same way they've solved every problem that has been thrown at them before then, since this game heavily encourages min/maxing in just a few skills so that that's the only way they can solve all their problems.

If this is a puzzle, then the solution to the puzzle will always involve you using the handful of skills you have at your disposal against the problems as they arise. If one character can have entirely different skills at their disposal from another character, then unless the game was built with an insanely intricate attention to balance, then it guarantees that some of these builds are going to be superior to others. And this game does not have that attention to balance. In fact, since most of these low-level early skills are useless without first getting the two upgrades for that skill, it basically means that you have to devote 4 skill points (4 levels) into gaining just one skill that you will use every single time the opportunity presents itself, meaning that you have practically created a situation of enforced min-maxing, where you have designed the game to demand characters be built around spamming one single skill over and over again, at least until they get so many levels that they have fully filled out every advantage they can apply to their chosen specialty.

Now let me explain what I mean by not having enough moving parts: The core of a puzzle is that it takes some sort of creative thinking or discovery of some nonintuitive method of using the tools at your disposal or (as with the Goh or Chess examples of strategy gaming) a need to foresee and outplan an outmaneuver the opposition. The failing is that if you only have one or two powers, and they cannot be used in conjunction with one another in some unusual way, then what you have is a situation where the only tool you have is a hammer, and as such, all you are looking for is whether or not your problems are nails. The AI of this game is, as previously stated, often extremely exploitable, as well, so the whole "need for unusually good foresight" thing flies out the window, as well.

The more units you have on the field in a strategy or tactics game, the more complex your attempts to keep them organized, and working towards the same goal necessarily have to become, especially the more that the game is designed to make units capable of tripping over their own units in attempts to create Concentration of Firepower. Oddly, this tends to make this game far more interesting strategically from the standpoint of the enemies than it makes your own one-unit side strategically interesting. It's only if you could throw out massive numbers of summon units that this could change, but the game seems to really want to discourage you having any summon critter that lasts more than a single turn.

Alternately, the way that a strategy or puzzle game gets interesting is that you give the player a large number of potential moves to make. (Or, in the case of the classic strategy games of Chess or Goh, making players take several turns in a row to maneuver into position to achieve even basic, short-term objectives.) This is generally defeated by this game's insistence upon having very slow-moving units in a confined area with only one or two abilities.

The other half of the problem lies in the fact that a puzzle or strategy game is inherently about your ability to understand the consequences of your actions, and plan accordingly. Strategy is, inherently, about just making a plan to solve the problem that faces you, and to an extent, the game does fairly well about being predictable at a tactical level, by which I mean that you can generally just look at an enemy and tell what kinds of abilities it will have after you have seen at least one other enemy like it.

I mention this because, and I want to put this in bold for emphasis, RANDOMNESS IS ALWAYS THE ENEMY OF ANY STRATEGY OR PUZZLE GAME. The entire point of any such game is that you are trying to make the player think ahead, and understand the ramifications of their actions before they make them, so that they can see what is one of the few solutions to an otherwise seemingly impossible task in front of them. Making anything random or unpredictable or just plain not giving players the information they need to make a proper decision destroys the entire basis upon which the game is founded, and just makes it a pointless and masochistic endeavor of simply reloading until you happen to win by either tedious trial and error or sheer dumb luck, neither of which are in any way fun.

What this game really needs is some sort of manual telling you more of the rules in this game. You can gain an extra 2 Movement Points, which help for making quick dashes to objectives, but there's nothing in the game that actually tells the player that they have this ability, they just have to learn it by accident. Likewise, a player has no real ability to understand what a shadow of a certain kind will do until they let themselves get hit with whatever it is the shadow will do. In the case of some of the more powerful enemies, it may just be an experiment that requires reloading after trying out... and again, everything about this game is so slow that reloading is grounds for just dropping this game in disgust for a day.

The translations on the skill tree and your stats are either confusing or sometimes call the same thing three different names, such as calling stats "characteristics", "features", and "attributes" along the 12:30 line of skill upgrades. I have no idea what you would mean if you just threw "features" in there, I get attributes, and get very confused when you throw in "characteristics", and you should really just stick to just one translation, and tell the player what it is you mean the first time.

There's also the "I didn't tell you the real rules of this battle" aspect in many of these story battles where you are given some objective to complete a battle, but then, when you achieve it, they just spawn more enemies directly on top of your character at a time when you can't take any more moves or do anything else with your turn. It is, again, exactly like the example I talked about earlier, where the chess game suddenly reveals that there's a hidden green set of chess pieces you must also capture, and you don't get a chance to reposition your pieces to face the new threat, and the green team gets to move first after being revealed. It just punishes the player for not having played through the level before, and encourages playing through the same levels more than once. (As if the frequent crashes didn't do this enough...)

What's really a deal-breaker, however, is how your character building can very easily guarantee or utterly deny your odds of victory. And this is what's really killer: You have to make your first choice on skill point allocation very early in the game, when you have only fought the first two battles or so, and get a couple more levels very quickly just from talking to all the random village people. The decisions the player makes at this point are irreversible and trying to change directions in your skill path means your character will permanently be weaker than if they had decided on what they really wanted from the start, and stuck with it.

Ultimately, this means the first time someone plays through this game, they are generally very likely to have to restart either individual levels or the entire game from the start not because they made a poor decision per se, but because they just weren't given the information they needed to make a proper one, and their utterly blind guess missed the mark. That's not poor playing, that's a poorly made puzzle.

Looking at responses on this board, it seems like there are two types of players: The ones who are innate min-maxers, like myself, who can look at the game, and make an accurate guess using only inferences about how games like these generally work, and build a character that will easily laugh off all the threats thrown at her, in which case I, as a player, find this whole thing overly long and far too easy, and the other types of players who are being punished for not being a min-maxer who could figure out how to properly guess what skills would probably be the most useful in situations they have yet to encounter in the first fifteen minutes of gameplay.

Oh, and by the way, nerfing the skills between the prologue and the first episode without telling or warning the player in any way? That's basically like suddenly saying that a Queen is too overpowered, and switching it out for another bishop. That's cheating! It's just plain sabotaging the entire notion that "skill" in playing this game means knowing how to build your character, and making this game a complete and total crapshoot if you can't even be assured that the character-building decisions you make at the start of the game will still apply by the next episode, especially if there's no ability to switch your skill point allocation around in response.

Which gets me on to the whole idea that you will blank out the end of the skill tree in the prologue, when you are forced to decide your entire strategy for the entire rest of the game from the first fifteen minutes of gameplay: You built the entire skill system as an unlockable tree, where you have to build up from weaker powers to the bigger and better powers... and then blank out the better powers you are building up towards until you get to the first episode. How are we supposed to make an informed decision now?!

========

Now then, let's talk about what makes a good puzzle or strategy game for a moment...

As I've dropped hints before, I consider Chess or similar classic board games a good reference point for such a thing, but I think something like The Fantastic Contraption (http://fantasticcontraption.com/) might also be good reference material when thinking about what can make a good puzzle or strategy game. You see, that's a game where you are given a very limited set of pieces (just wheels and sticks made by clicking and dragging) and you have to create complex machines by putting them together in an unusual and non-intuitive new way.

Generally, this means something like a tank tread with a basket on top built by putting sticks in a chain around a few wheels, with a basket on top to carry the pieces into the goal area by bulldozing the obstacles in the way, or else creating a catapult by attaching a chain being pulled by a wheel to a lever that flings the pieces you need to get into the goal at their destination, but there are also even more creative solutions.

In fact, physics puzzles generally tend to reward coming up with solutions that nobody would ever see coming, and are enjoyable for the sheer creativity that they allow.

This game, meanwhile, tends to devolve into using the same ability as often as you possibly can. The active abilities don't play terribly well with each other in unusual ways, and the enemies are fairly predictable one-trick ponies, as well. Some of the enemies, specifically, the ones that push or pull your character, are capable of being fairly interesting, as you can use their predictable abilities to your own advantage if you can manage to somehow reposition yourself or them so that they are shoving you in the direction you want to go, but most of the opposing shadows are just boring damage inflicters, and many of your own possible skills just (boringly) reduce damage or heal it.

What would REALLY improve the game would be giving the player more skills to play with that could potentially be used in conjunction with one another. (For example, like the way that one can use Fairy Tale as a decoy, and shoving it in the direction you are not going to lure the enemies into wasting several turns chasing the Fairy Tale instead of you, which makes you wonder why anyone would play with any other potential character build when that one is so obviously useful in every possible situation.)

To see how advanced this can really get, just take a look at how players of Dwarf Fortress can take something as basic as pressure plates, water, pumps, and axles, and turn it into an in-game four-function calculator. It just takes the realization that you can leverage pressure plates and water or whether or not a certain gear is turning into basic logic operations (http://df.magmawiki.com/index.php/DF2010:Computing), and you can build almost any kind of basic computing device from waterwheel-driven wooden axles inside the gameworld, just because a handful of very simple tools in that game are so capable of being repurposed.

What could help this to happen is to start off by designing skills from the perspective of how they could possibly interact with one another in ways that are not simply scripted the way that "Good Intentions" is scripted to give you more health the more summons you have lying around. If we're going to be having a game where we have several versions of a summon whatever spell handed around, why not work with multiple different kinds of summons that do more things than just absorb a couple shots before dissapearing, or maybe dealing some pointless magic point damage that doesn't seem to have any worthwhile impact at all, since the enemies that have powerful attacks still get one attack per turn.

Let's give an example that's relatively close to something achievable with what is in the game already: There already is a skill on the skill tree (fifth tier of the 11 o'clock branch) that lets you teleport into the position of a double, which is created in the same branch. Now, let's say that you could instead set up some sort of situation where you can use that teleporting skill for more than 3 tiles against a unit whose actions are random, (and hence, inherently against the entire notion of strategy or puzzle gaming, and as such should simply be removed from the game,) and instead use the "Scent Of..." skill (Six o'clock, third tier), which has a repulsion skill, and use player-controlled repulsion and attraction skills to push a clone past enemies, and then swap places with the clone to get into an area that they otherwise could not.

In fact, having abilities for summon critters that let them do things like push you or other summon critters into odd positions, shutting down enemy abilities, blocking off paths, or just serving as distractions would work wonders. Make something that could serve as a bridge or a teleporter or a wall to let the player alter the map in some way, and you vastly expand the number of potential solutions a player can employ against a problem. Compensate by making far more complex enemies that use abilities like having their "terrifying" shadow units also shove their damage-dealing units into position to attack you. All of a sudden, you're talking about a game where you're trying to build a screen of difficult-to-control summon critters to block off highly mobile and difficult-to-predict (but still possible if you study their patterns closely, and see what they can do), and the game becomes far more interesting than just hiding in a corner, and punching "Anticipate" 3 times per turn for 15 turns in a row for half a dozen battles in a row.

In fact, the entire "survive" and "get from Point A to Point B" dynamic could use some revisiting, as well. How about some more puzzle-like objectives to complete? The end of the hard path in the Seid was a decent start, as it was at least something different, although it wound up just being completely pointless tedium after the first shadow you eliminate, since every single one of those shadows was defeated in the same way. Still, creating puzzles where you need to cut off the connection in some sort of (hopefully far more complex) chain of mutually-supporting enemies would make for more interesting puzzles than simply outlasting the opposition.

Really, this whole section would have to be used in a "maybe in my next game" sort of sense, as I don't think changes as major as the ones I am talking can really be rolled into the game as it stands (without completely revamping all the skills, enemies, combat, etc.), but there's a certain paradigm you need to understand when it comes to turn-based gaming.

... And it turns out, I'm going to have to actually extend this one more post to be able to cover the whole gameplay: roleplaying section I wanted to go into. I really should have expected this, but I thought this post would have been shorter than this...

Wraith_Magus
01-21-2011, 09:39 PM
Improved Role-Playing, Part 1:

Finally, I am on to what is hopefully the last of these extremely long comments on the game.

Today I want to talk about making a better role-playing experience for the player. I'm going to start this off by delving head-first into the great missed opportunity of this game as a role-playing game:

Now, open up the game and look at all those little skills in the skill tree. Look at all those descriptions of stats in the character screen. Even more than your typical wizard's choice of "lightning bolt versus fireball", the choices you are making when building your character in this game aren't just a measure of what gun they decided to spend extra time firing on the practice range, but represent core aspects of the personality of the character we are playing. When picking whether we fight our "shadow of doubt" with "negativity" or "good intentions" or "consolation" or we choose to diffuse some of the sting of "harassment" with humor, or to simply trudge through it by dipping into our willpower, these are all critical, fundamental aspects of how we deal with the problems, doubts, stress, and insecurities of our lives. I.E. these things are the very foundations of character, and hence make the best possible entry point to role-play a character.

Here's why this is a huge missed opportunity:

What do we actually do with these traits? Pretty much nothing; It's just the same choice between fireballs or lightning bolts, or putting points into assault rifles instead of sniper rifles. The choices you make here only apply to the parts of combat with no relevance to the plot itself. The game plot doesn't even bother to differentiate whether you are a thief or a wizard, you're just the same old "hero of destiny" who must save the world because destiny (I.E. the writer) says so, the same as every other cliched RPG ever, and, unless I missed something, being "different" was supposed to be the selling point, here.

You see, this game is built quite a bit about generating atmosphere and a mystery, but it all falls down when I can't understand my character's motives, and any ability to insert my own seems to be wasted effort, while the plot makes little sense because every line that is even remotely relevant to the plot is very obtuse, and the inability to be sure when something is purposefully obtuse or just poorly translated eventually just make me throw up my hands and stop even caring about trying to figure out the plot. You see, it really doesn't matter if I can manage to somehow correctly guess the plot at an early stage or not, because I have no real means of impacting the game's story. I only control combat, which has a tenuous link to the story at best (and I so barely recognize it when it does that my doubt over the whole matter makes me decide against jumping to any conclusions), and that the game is so linear that all I have to do is do my mandatory punch-clock conflict resolutions that involve just doing whatever the box at the top of the screen directly commands me to do until the unintelligible dialogue boxes pop up again for me to click through. In other words, why bother role-playing if there's absolutely no acknowledgment or reward for doing so coming from the game itself?

I know we're trying to be all creative storytellers in making this story, here, but remember that it's a game, and games are for interactive storytelling. You're already handicapping yourself in the whole storytelling aspect by making the main character a basically ageless, faceless, nameless, personalityless entity in vaguely human shape, so let us players make up the difference a little, here.

The death knell of the role-playing is that in those dialogue boxes, it really doesn't matter what I do, either. As I said before, my character might as well have amnesia because she's an utter blank slate devoid of any personality or meaningful information about the world around her. Her father's dead, and presumably, this has cause SOME sort of bad memories to surface because of SOME sort of regret, but I have no idea what. At first, (and since I apparently trigger censorship for saying the "R word", I will instead use a different term,) I thought that this whole mess started because The Father (that's literally his name?) was the "non-consensual sexual partner" of the protagonist, only to find that maybe it was some other guy called "The Man" in the Seid, and that it was probably some other girl who "non-consensually performed sexual acts". You see, if I'm trying to role-play the heroine's reaction to this, since my only ability to see what my character is thinking is through forcing her to think something by multiple choice, then having at least SOME idea of what she thought of her father would be a good starting point. If I'm supposed to create my own "what my character thinks of her father", then I need to have some sort of basis to judge him on. All the player gets is that he was fairly stoic, but a couple of sentences about his eye color doesn't really give you a good foundation to build your character's most important relationship around.

Again, however, none of this really matters, because picking a choice of "Oh, Daddy, I miss you so much *sniff*," or "feh, the geezer finally croaked, so what, **** happens," makes as much sense gameplay-wise as picking the option to say "I am a duck! MOOOOO!" in the same context. You see, the plot still railroads you through the same script regardless, the characters you "interact" with respond to you pretty much the same regardless (by never talking to you again, or at least not remembering what you said), and the choices functionally have no consequence on anything. So really, the best choice in that situation is probably "I am a duck!", since at least that might be worth a chortle, unlike trying to take the plot seriously.

So, trying not to dwell TOO much on the negative (sorry, I really have been harping too much, haven't I?), this is the alternative, that can create a more positive experience:

Now, ideally, a game could be so utterly open-ended that you could traverse multiple wildly divergent threads of storyline, but this is something that's probably beyond the scope of just about any game that isn't trying specifically to devote itself to just that.

There are games that have characters who remember the way you have treated them in the past, and will develop their relationship with you based upon a collection of your choices, and as such, your decisions have consequences because you need to keep your relationship positive. This requires having a recurring relationship with characters to matter, however, and that seems only to matter to your "companion" characters, but I'll go into this more a little later.

You see, while some of those other things can be very difficult, there is something you can do more easily, and it involves making your player choices and character development story-wise be linked to their character development skill-gaining-wise. Basically, even if the choices you make don't impact the plot, and the characters you impact don't come back to reward your good behavior or seek revenge, you can say that those interactions have helped shape the character, and therefore keep the player thinking about how their choices matter, and that, therefore, there is a reason to keep engaged in what is happening in the plot.

First, a little more side-tracking through the games of days past, so as to ensure that we all learn from their successes and failures: Many games will have some sort of "your choices affect your character growth" gimmick, but this often (and by "often" I mean I can count on one hand the number of games I've played that haven't) devolves into a very one-dimensional measure of "good" or "evil" or else some camouflaged version of those two options. Worse, the games tend to reward picking the same option over and over again, meaning that you really only make the choice once, right as you start playing the game, and then just follow through by always picking "good" the entire game through so that you don't lose your Light Side bonuses for ever straying from the path.

There are a few ways I've seen different approaches handled. One of my favorite, if incredibly obscure, and not terribly well implemented examples, is the Growlanzer series, a barely-imported series of RPGs from Japan. In it, you can make choices that affect character personality traits along more than one axis. For example, there is a "cool" versus "hotheaded" axis of your character, where getting angry at your enemies and shouting at them, or making emotionally-based decisions gives you
"hotheaded points", while staying emotionally aloof and approaching your problems rationally gives you counteracting "cool points". There are about eight different axis upon which your character is judged, as well, which include how "forthright versus sarcastic" your character is, whether or not he is a womanizer, and even has a "likes guys" stat, just in case that sort of thing floats your boat.

Now, a nice thing about how this system works is that it actually blocks off access to certain choices if you haven't gotten enough points in a certain trait. So, for example, if you want to gain a lot of womanizer points, you have to start fairly early at being a jerk who can't keep it in his pants, because once you have established yourself as having gentlemanly behavior towards the women you travel with, you can't suddenly pull a schizoid personality switch.

This actually led to me kicking myself a bit in the pants for my earlier choices in the third game. You see, I had picked a non-womanizing, non-likes guys route playing it, and eventually came upon an assassin sent by the villains of the game to kill my party for their whole "thwart the evil organization's world domination" shtick. One of the options that appeared to respond to seeing this assassin, who was an albino with long hair who wore an outfit consisting of sunglasses (in a cave, no less), a black leather trench coat, black leather knee-high boots, and everything else being an excessive amount of black leather belts was to shout out that "He looks FAAAAAAAAABULOUS!" Only, this was greyed-out, thanks to my not having previously developed enough "bi-curious points" to say something that shamelessly hilarious. I almost restarted the game right then and there to try playing a fruitcake hero just to make choices like that.

Now then, the failing of that game and system was that it was a mechanic that had little application in the game itself. It changed a few bits of dialogue, but nothing really beyond the following few lines of dialogue, and it gave your character a minor skill for having enough points down one axis over the other. For example, your main character could gain a direct-damage attack skill for being "hotheaded", while he could gain a support skill that would assist in using other skills for being "cool", but these skills were not enough to seriously change how you played that character, at least compared to the earliest choices you make in the game when creating a new character.

Another game worth looking at, which actually does some good in this field is Alpha Protocol. In that game, you have three general choices in how to react to people: Professional, a generally emotionally neutral and cautious, a "default" answer that generally doesn't step on toes, but isn't very interesting, Aggressive, a generally pointlessly impatient and violent jerk who tries to threaten everyone he meets, and "Suave", which basically fluctuates between being womanizing to the point of you wanting to put restraining orders on your own character, to being an egomaniac, to just being sarcastic and childish. You get some reward for picking the same choice over and over again, but you generally do better to pick whatever works for the specific person you are talking to at the time: The boss character likes aggressive people, the rival agent likes suave, and the data analyst likes professional. Juggle these to suit whoever you are talking to and get the results you want. It even keeps track of what you have picked in the past, and will change future dialogue to say, "Hey! I heard about you, you're a maniac on a hair trigger who kills everyone he deals with. I don't want to deal with you!" The general failing of this is that the character comes off as having a personality that turns far too easily on a dime, switching from emotionless "professional" to being in a nearly homicidal rage, threatening someone, to going back to emotionless in the very next dialogue option, all in the course of a single conversation.

So then, here's how to build upon these successes and failures: What you really need to do is to link character choices to how their character develops. You can do this for both skills and stats, if you so choose. In fact, you can almost do away with experience points and levels altogether, if you play it right. You could have your character growth based entirely upon the choices that they make in the game.

The game is already pretty much set up to work with this, just divide up skills like "super ego" into falling into one line of choices where you express superiority over the people you meet, while "negativity" lies down another set of personality choices where you are pessimistic, while "good intentions" lies down a path of trying to console or support the people you meet. Basically, in another type of RPG, you would gain skills for thievery and/or illusion magic if you tried to be a silver-tongued manipulator, while a more forthright character would get direct-damage fighter abilities and/or "boom magic".

To tie this in to what is already in the game, there's a guy in the starting village who apparently has an imaginary friend, and he talks about it. If you go along with that and express interest in what having an imaginary friend is like, you move along a track towards gaining that sort of skill and a larger charisma. If you refuse to put up with someone living in fantasy, and directly dealing in their problems, you move more towards having more willpower and towards skills that revolve around simply having enemy harassment bounce off your thick skin, like Unaffected.

Although this may be difficult for you to develop means of properly detecting, this can also be extended to the ways in which the player tries to resolve combat. Shoving your way directly through enemies, or using skills, once you have them, that directly strip your enemies of powers or otherwise fighting aggressively can move your character towards having a personality that favors direct confrontation, and skills become available to match your playstyle. Someone who is cautious, takes little damage, uses decoys, takes many turns, and generally works at the battles more like puzzles than brawls would start accruing points towards personality traits that give skills that favor that sort of play.

Basically, make it appear as if the game notices how you are playing, and is responding to the way you have played, which is what makes this whole storytelling thing "interactive", because for something to truly be interactive, it needs to interact with you in a manner with more meaning than "you get to see more of the story" and "try again, and if you do it better, you will get to see more of the story".


********** Haha! Cutoff due to length again! *********

Wraith_Magus
01-21-2011, 09:40 PM
Improved Role-Playing, Part 2:

And now for something completely different...

I also want to talk a little about the "relationship" mechanic, and how this can work better in a game like this.

Now, having only played up into the first episode, I have only met one companion to have a relationship with, and it's fairly limited, as it's pretty much just my character talking at "The Crow", and while it has a relationship value, unless it transforms into an actual guy who is called "The Crow" (*cough* movie reference), then this is fairly meaningless. (And yes, I'm betting this is somewhat of a spoiler, if only because the only way how you treat the crow could matter is if it either is a guy in crow's clothing, or a guy is using the crow as surveillance equipment, and will eventually pop in with relationship values equal to that which The Crow had.)

Regardless, I'm willing to bet I can make a few assumptions about how this is going to go, based upon every other game ever with relationship mechanics works in exactly the same way: You have a "Relationship meter", which works like an oil level that you can read with a dipstick: Your relationship is measured only in terms of "you have a good relationship" and "you have a crappy relationship". These values are pushed in one direction or another by either being nice or being blatantly abusive, which basically means this is entirely an extension of the whole one-dimensional "good versus evil" mechanic I was talking about before.

It's really shallow because this means that, no matter what personality traits you may have, you just pick the syrupy sweet choices for the character you want to have bigger relationship numbers on, regardless of however you play the rest of the game. You may be Emperor Palpatine-type evil for the rest of the game, but whenever you are around Generic Love Interest, you throw out the lines that will get her in your bed for the one cutscene. (Although just faking it to get her in bed would be kinda evil, it's generally portrayed as how they honestly feel, and still wouldn't match the "I kill random peasants just to get more evil karma" playstyle that such alignment systems encourage.)

So, in other words, you have to work this in with the personality system I was talking about earlier. Instead of having just one set of dialogues for someone who has a high relationship number at certain points in the plot, and a quick "we're so over" dialogue that just stops you from seeing any relationship dialogues if you have a low value, try writing a set of different "relationship storylines" that branch out depending on the main character's personality, and how it works in relation to the companion's personality.

You see, at their core, friendships rely upon a certain set of psychological needs, which are generally unique to any given person. Some people are emotionally insecure, and need people who will give them positive reinforcement, tell them they are worthwhile, and will stick around anyone who can scratch that particular itch. Some people crave newness and adventure, and others crave stability. Some people need to see themselves as being a certain type of person, such as a levelheaded decision-maker, or a "manly man", or being popular, or being the smartest person in any room they walk into, or any other particular role that lets them say that they are different and valuable.

Let's say, for example, that one companion is a meek character, like Leila, the very timid, man-shy woman from the starting village. An aggressive, strong-willed, strongly opinionated character, who will fight any insult to herself or her friends would have a very different relationship with a meek character like Leila than a similarly meek, pessimistic character might. Someone who is another meek person who relies upon others might make for a friend who can give mutual consolation, but whose meekness may mean that they are still too easily exploitable, and at the mercy of others nearby. The aggressive main character, however, might play a role more as a "white knight" friend who defends Leila from other aggressors, but runs the danger of becoming someone so unintentionally intimidating or controlling that they may be no better than the bullies she is supposedly defending Leila from if she doesn't take care to ensure that she actually stops and listens to Leila from time to time. An egotistical main character, however, may simply have the sort of personality Leila would never associate with, because she wouldn't be able to relate to her, or be simply disgusted by the main character's behavior.

This would also potentially open up the possibility of having certain friends become mutually exclusive, where, for example, if we go by those three main character personality types, one character will not become friends with egotists, another will not become friends with strong-willed aggressive types, and a third will not become friends with meek people, meaning you have to choose two of the three that could become potential friends.

Doing this creates relationships that have more depth than simply picking the "not a total jerk" option until you have a high relationship value in every character, and wind up with a "harem ending" being the logical conclusion, and makes them much more interesting to the player, as you have to actually make a pitch to the characters, instead of them just lining up trying to pitch their set of unique character traits at you, hoping you'll pick them for relationship point boosting. It gives characters depth to have them have emotional needs that you can fill, and even more depth to have their relationships actual become capable of being built in different ways, fulfilling their needs in different ways, and potentially allowing for character growth in different directions. For example, a Leila with another meek main character who wind up both being bullied, but work to console and encourage one another might eventually become a more courageous person eventually, forced to try to protect her similarly meek friend and express herself more compared to the one who can hide behind a more strong-willed friend. The more strong-willed main character, however, may help develop Leila into a more gentle character who tries to be supportive from behind the scenes, while still never quite getting over her social problems.

To refer back to the problem with Alpha Protocol for a second, this means that you also need to introduce some sort of mechanism for checking for someone trying to "have the best of every world" or "going for the harem ending" by trying to change their personality to suit every individual person or situation. While having limits on extreme personality shifts (I.E. suddenly snapping in a conversation, and just punching someone takes serious aggressive traits, while just throwing an insult at someone after being insulted yourself can be something anyone can do, although both give more aggressive points) can work to some degree, what the game really needs to do is keep track of a player who tries to constantly shift what they are, and call them out on it. "You're just an emotional chameleon! You don't have any personality of your own, you just say whatever you think people want to hear, hoping to blend into the surroundings. You're totally hollow on the inside!"

Whether an "emotional chameleon" is outright disallowed, punished, or a viable strategy is up to you as a game designer, but it should at least be recognized when it happens, as it often is the best possible strategy if you don't deal with it, and hence, the one any rational player would immediately jump to, even if it kills role-play.

===============

This, however, gets me to something very important, which I feel the need to state in its own section due to this importance:

YOU HAVE TO TELL THE PLAYER WHAT IS HAPPENING, AND WHY IT IS HAPPENING IF YOU SET UP THE GAME MECHANICS IN THIS WAY.

Fundamentally, players play games to win. If you have a set of different skills or stats to put into radically different types of skills, they will inherently want to put their points into whatever they think will give them the best shot at victory, or else best suits their own preferred playstyle.

If you let a player seemingly go the "emotional chameleon" route to gain as many friends as possible, you can't just ambush them somewhere along the line, and say that they lose all their friends because they didn't choose one friend over another early enough in the game.

If you let players gain powers based upon their choices, you need to tell them that it takes "30 big ego points" to get some set of powers, and tell them what that set of powers will do, and tell them which of their decisions give them those ego points without having to reverse-engineer how the game is working through continuous replay and reloading. Because most players aren't going to spend that much time trying to figure it out, and will just get frustrated when they can't seem to control their character, and the fights seem too hard because they don't understand how to build their character.

=======

Anyway, this should be just about everything that was really pressing on my mind to say about this game, from what I have played of it. I hope that it was of at least some use to someone, especially the guys working on the game, if only "maybe in the next game".

Also, I hope I don't scare anyone away from disagreeing with anything I say just because they feel intimidated by the sheer size of what I've written (although odds are they'll never read this part if they were), and would like to see some people throw in their own two cents about why I am sort of right about some things, and a total idiot about others.

Cheers guys,
- Wraith_Magus

Wraith_Magus
01-22-2011, 01:47 AM
Choice in games:

OK, so I'm doing what I do best, which is to say stay up sleepless on a weekend reading or watching a few things on the Internet before using it as fuel for four-hour long analysis-heavy diatribes on whatever random forum I've invaded for this particular month. (Hey guys!)

Anyway, when talking about the entire "the game as a puzzle or strategy game", I find many of my thoughts and concerns echoed in this particular clip (http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits/2590-Choice-and-Conflict) from a series of clips about making better games... it's nice to find backup, sometimes.

(By the way, the rest of this post assumes you clicked that link and watched, so do that now if you want to follow along, here...)

Now then, with that said, there is one major apparent point of conflict between what they have said and what I have said. This is that a thrilling choice that is presented to a player of Mario is that his risk in gaining a mushroom is based around uncertainty, and my own statement that uncertainty in choices is a big bad no-no that should be avoided.

The reason why this apparent conflict exists lies largely in what type of game this is, which is, again, an RPG whose game elements are functionally a puzzle or strategy game. There isn't a short way to say this, so it'll probably turn into another manifesto, but at this point, I figure "what the hey?" it's not like anyone who's actually trudged this far (if there are any) will falter and fail on the next five pages of text. So, on with the show!

You see, this game is a turn-based puzzle game, and turn-based puzzle games are what are sometimes called "Completed Games". This means that there are a finite number of possible outcomes, and you can systematically go through every possible decision, and find the optimum decision path to take for every single game. Consider Tic-Tac-Toe for example, it is a game whose utter simplicity make it, as it was famously put in the movie War Games, "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play." Tic-Tac-Toe always results in draws unless your opponent is massively distracted because even a very young child can immediately see every possible iteration of the game that can result from any given move. There are only 9 spaces to move to, and only one type of move, and game board symmetry functionally narrows the options even further down. It fails as a game because there are a couple of obvious optimum play strategies that can guarantee at least a draw in every game, and every easily finds and always uses these play strategies.

Chess, and the even more complex Chinese game of Goh, meanwhile, are also completed games, but manage to avoid the trap of Tic-Tac-Toe's repeatable obviousness because these games manage to flood the player with an incomprehensible number of possible iterations. It's functionally impossible even for even the most advanced of modern computers to calculate every possible chess move that can possibly be played, and therefore narrow it down to a single perfect play strategy.

This, ultimately, is what creates choice in a strategy game. In a sense, it IS a risk made on unknown information, simply because you can't possibly process all the information contained in every possible outcome of a single chess move, but you can process the information out at least a certain number of steps. Being able to recognize which chain of forced responses to your actions best advances your position is a bit of a judgment call, which makes it intuition that, like all intuition, is trained by experience.

In order to reach this point, however, this means that any given strategy game will need to flood its players with choices, and give the player a metric for judging these choices that makes measuring them along one common currency very difficult. Chess achieves this by making the utility of any given position very difficult to judge - it's a game about maneuvering, and it's difficult to value one set of maneuvers more highly than another set of maneuvers until you can actually count the payoff in terms of who loses more pieces in any one exchange once you start clashing in a series of piece trade-offs. Most strategy games, however, fail on this point because there is a fairly simple common currency that allows you to measure the utility of all actions upon, and therefore turn it all into a calculation instead of a true choice, as the video had explained. This is generally why I don't like 4X games like Civilization, even though I generally like turn-based strategy. Everything is measurable along just a couple of obvious common currencies, which makes things not so much choices as a scripted list of priorities to be routinely followed to maximize efficiency in accomplishing the optimized route to victory.

Real-time games don't suffer from this drawback, as the game is inherently unoptimizable simply because of the delay in human reaction time or the inability to properly judge your decisions due to having to make them in a short amount of time, leaving you unable to rationally follow the ramifications of your actions to the point where they would let you deduce what the short-and-mid-term consequences of your actions will be. You have maybe half a second to decide whether that dark lump on the other hill is just a bush or an enemy sniper in an online shooting game before you will be shot if it is a sniper, and if it isn't a sniper, you've just given your position away to wherever the enemy sniper really is. This, again, is a matter of judgment, it's something that the game trains you (through what that site called "The Skinner Box") to be able to make better split-second decisions over time. What you eventually do is reduce the inefficiencies, and move gradually closer to optimum play as you gain experience, and the limited amount of stimuli that a game can offer eventually programs you to respond to those stimuli in a manner nearer perfection the more hours you devote to playing the game.

What sets turn-based apart is that it lets you take the time to make those decisions, which lets you both take time to relax as you play the game and also develop much deeper strategies about how to solve the problems you face, but because it does, it inherently either demands that every decision be an optimized or at least virtually completely optimized decision, or the game will be laughably easy.

This is why I had to take time out to talk about Winter Voices as a strategy game. You just don't have enough choices to make in this game, and as such, it becomes like Tic-Tac-Toe, where the choices in-battle are painfully obvious to anyone with the most basic grasp of the game mechanics.

The choices OUT of battle, which is to say, how you develop your character, are much more difficult to make, since there are so many more choices to be made, and a seemingly bewildering map of skills to choose from, but that just creates the same "ideal build" of character because everything is measured by a single common currency, it just means people haven't played enough to really find it yet. People like me who have been conditioned through the play of various RPGs in the past have an accumulated intuition that gives them a better chance at making the sorts of uninformed guesses about what game mechanics will likely be the most exploitable when building a character, but that's beside the point. The problem here is that if the only major decision you make in the game is how to build your character, and that is done well in advance of the action or any sort of concrete knowledge of the challenges your build will be forced to overcome, then you're functionally making a game where we only play for the first part of the game where we decide what section of the skill tree we are going to conquer, and what character stats to min/max, and then the rest is just punching through the dialogue trees and tedium of combat animations before the inevitable results of victory or defeat are handed to us hours after we last truly made a choice in the game.

Wraith_Magus
01-22-2011, 08:53 PM
Choice and Role-Playing In a Psychological Game (part 1):

Right, then, at this point, I apparently just can't stop myself, so I'm chugging on ahead. Having sat and watched through some more of those clips talking about game design that I linked to in the last post, I went and thought a little more deeply on what could make a truly compelling psychological concept rolled into a game mechanic.

Now then, fair disclaimer, I'm figuring this one is potentially beyond the scope of this sort of indie dev team, even if they set out to completely build an entire game around this sort of concept, so this is pretty much shooting the moon material.

I should also make yet another link to one of the relevant clips (http://www.escapistmagazine.com/videos/view/extra-credits/1974-Enriching-Lives) to talk about how this sort of choice can really work.

Now then, I've already talked about the fallacy of a "Moral Dilemma" being the sort of choice being offered in a game like Fable, where you are asked to choose between, "Do I protect innocent civilians, or murder them, and take their stuff?" This just isn't really a dilemma at all, since a dilemma requires some sort of internal conflict, and even if you were somehow incapable of discerning which of those two decisions was good and which was evil, the game butchers the survivors by outright labeling one choice with a big +10 Evil for murdering civilians, telling you it's considered unequivocally evil by the game, and there's no means of appeal. The only reason to pick that option is if you wanted to be evil, and if you wanted to be evil, then there wouldn't be any conflict either, because you just accomplished your goal.

What makes a real moral dilemma is something that forces you to choose between two or more of your moral values, and declare which one of them is more valuable to you.

This sort of "clean choice" of what is most valuable to you is exemplified in the choice that you get that is talked about in that clip, where you are forced to either commit genocide, or strip all free will from half an entire species of sentient beings. It's asking "What do you value more: your free will, or your right to live? Would you rather live, happy and brainwashed than die for everything you believe in, and your fundamental potential to grow and learn and reason on your own?"

This is a heady question, but it's actually almost clinical and sterile compared to the sorts of questions I was thinking more about asking.

You see, there's a form of moral debate that centers on how our moral values should be formed. There is a general field of ethics called Deontology (which is probably best described in this Three Minute Philosophy clip on Immanuel Kant (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwOCmJevigw) than anything else), which would state that actions can be considered good or evil regardless of the result of your action. This is as opposed to Consequentialism, which states that achieving the result that does the most to help the most people (or, failing that, does the most to mitigate the most harm) is the core moral goal (different branches of Consequentialism hold different definitions of helping others, such as Utilitarianism being about mitigating suffering and promoting happiness,) and what you do to achieve that goal doesn't really matter (often derided as "the ends justify the means").

This means that Deontology tends to come out like the Ten Commandments: Thou Shalt Not Kill, Thou Shalt Not Steal, Thou Shalt Not Lie, etc. Deontology appeals to people as a moral philosophy because it is fairly absolutist, and as such, can give moral certainty and comfort because it can delineate such strict and clear moral guidelines. Like a comic book character such as Batman's ethics, he stands resolutely by the moral guideline that Thou Shalt Not Kill, and as such, is fine with punching and inflicting severe pain on anyone he finds deserving, but will not kill anyone under any circumstances.

Conversely, Consequentialist philosophy would say that if, in the case of a comic book villain who has remorselessly killed hundreds of people, and will kill again if given any sort of chance, and being able to contain them in some sort of prison is impossible (I.E. comic book villains that manage to escape Arkam Asylum or its equivalent within a week of going back there), it's best just to kill them before they can kill again. In fact, it is immoral not to kill them, because if you could stop them before they killed again, and chose not to, then you would actually be morally responsible for those people who the villain killed because you chose not to stop him. While this rationale may sound strange to some, it can easily be rewritten as the way of stating the moral rationale of why it is justifiable to fight a war in self-defense. Killing Hitler and however many ♥♥♥♥♥ it takes to stop Hitler is morally justified because that is the only way to stop the deaths of a far larger number of people, and the expansion of one of the most horrific totalitarian regimes that ever existed.

This is a fairly long rant I've gone on to illustrate what not to do (for which I'm sort of sorry), but I want to illustrate a fairly basic point, here. You see, both of these schools of thought are very basic ways of looking at the world, and it's very difficult to convince someone who looks at the world in the other way that their way of looking at the world is wrong.

To go back to the "genocide vs. brainwashing" debate, if you were a Utilitarian, you would side with brainwashing, as that would increase the most happiness, but if you were a Deontologist whose moral inclinations dictated "Thou Shalt Not Abridge Free Will", then you would see a clear case for genocide. It's possible that one could also be a Deontologist who would side with brainwashing, since they wouldn't list free will as being as important as ensuring that you are not committing mass murder. Potentially, some alternate form of

But the point is, it's very hard to convince someone that their view on that matter is wrong. In fact, it can make them very angry if they search within themselves, find one answer to be the right one, and then find out that the game gives them "Evil" points for their trouble.

Christine O'Donnell is a woman who recently ran for Congress here in the United States as a "Tea Party" candidate, and while avoiding the whole politics of the rest of her campaign, she was generally mocked by anyone outside the fairly religious conservative base she came from and appealed to. One thing she said, however, stuck out to me, when she said that she would, essentially, never lie, not even if it was to the ♥♥♥♥♥ and they were asking where Jewish people were hiding, so that they could kill them. This drew her some serious ridicule, but compare that to the axe-murderer in the Kant clip, and you can understand why she would try to boast about making a choice like this. It's something a significant portion of the population would never consider to be a rational moral choice, but if someone truly wants to stick to their guns as a Deontologist, then that is the sort of logical extreme that one would have to be willing to adopt to maintain rational consistency in their moral framework.

There is another type of moral dilemma, however, one that's based in a far "dirtier" form of ethics. In a sense, this is the sort of ethical dilemma that is tackled by Star Trek when they set up the conflict as coming between what Spock, the rationalist, says is the most moral course of action, and what McCoy, the emotional moralist, will say. This is the sort of conflict where, if we side with our emotional moral choice, and are then asked to defend our choice as though it were a choice between life and free will, we're honestly unable to come up with why, exactly, we feel that way.

For an example of this kind of dirty morality, consider the sort of choice faced in a movie like Black Hawk Down. In the movie (and in the real life event that inspired it), two black hawk helicopter pilots are shot down behind enemy lines, with a massive enemy military presence in the city ensuring that any attempt to rescue the downed pilots would result in American soldiers being killed. More soldiers being killed, in fact, than would be saved in trying to rescue the two of those soldiers.

This is where the dilemma kicks in, and the American brass goes the Spock route of making the rational decision that their primary objective is to save as many lives as they possibly can. Comparing the options of cutting their losses, and letting two soldiers die at the hands of the enemy versus probably losing many more lives for slim odds of rescuing two, they make the rational Consequentialist decision that it's better to cut their losses.

The commander in the field, however, follows a different moral route, the McCoy route, which is best summed up in the tagline for the movie, "Leave no man behind." He decides that his only moral recourse is to rescue his men rather than leave the pilots at the hands of the enemy, even if it means killing off even more of his men to do so, and even if it's already too late to save those pilots. The movie goes out of its way to lionize this decision. In fact, it casts moral dispersions on the brass for not also making this decision. It pretty much assumes (probably very rightly) that the majority of people would consider sending in more men to die to ensure that they "leave no man behind" is the morally correct thing to do.

But this is the really critical follow-up question that has to then be asked: If this is a moral dilemma, and a moral dilemma is a choice between which two values you prize more, then the "Spock" choice here has a fairly clear moral rationale - you are trying to save as many lives as possible. What moral value are you saying is more important than protecting the lives of your men if you declare you will "leave no man behind"? You can't say that you are protecting the lives of your soldiers by going in to rescue those two downed pilots, or that it's possible that nobody would die on that mission. More than two people died on that mission, and the commander who made the decision to send those men in knew and stated that he knew that his decision was killing more men than it would save, so he knew and willingly decided anyway to send men to their deaths because something was more important than the lives of those men, so that argument is off the table. If you declare you will leave no man behind, then you are declaring that you are letting the lives of the few outweigh the lives of the many, and that sort of choice demands a very good explanation for why you would do such a thing.

There are some other concerns that can be raised, like how it is better for morale to say that you would go back and ensure that nobody be left as a P.O.W., but I, at least, find it very hard for you to say that an issue of keeping morale high is more important than the lives of your troops would really be more moral. In fact, it may just be more callous than simply abandoning soldiers to their deaths would be to say that making sure soldiers are kept emotionally ready to fight and die is more important than keeping them alive.

What if that something that was more important than the lives of his men was fear? Fear that, in spite of all the power and responsibility at his fingertips, he didn't have the power to save everyone, and didn't have a choice in the matter. Maybe it was fear of having to face how dispassionate a decision it would be to just abandon those pilots to their fate, and what that would say about him as a person. Maybe it was just more comforting to send men screaming into their deaths in battle, fighting to death, rather than accepting losses they would have to accept no matter what.

Consider if someone suddenly had their hand thrust onto a hot stove and it scalded them as they were helpless to do anything about it. It's torture, right? Something totally horrible and mentally scarring. Compare that against if they were given the choice of sticking their hand on the stove, and getting some minor reward for doing so, or something worse, and they instead chose to shove their own hand on the stove. They'd actually feel quite a bit better about it, and even be much better able to withstand the pain, as some psychological studies on the subject have shown. This is because they had choice in the matter, and choice means power, and power is ultimately a very comforting thing.

So then, what if "leave no man behind" is picked because, even if you kill off more of your men, it was your choice to kill off your men that makes it more comforting? That you actually make that emotional moral choice because you fear having to face your own powerlessness to make a better choice, one that can completely absolve you of any blame or deaths?

Can you really come up with a better explanation for why you would feel so emotionally committed to "leave no man behind" than that?

This is where I think a game can be built around making truly difficult choices: If you force a player to make a decision like Black Hawk Down's choice on whether or not to leave men behind, then you can essentially force the player to really examine the reason why they hold onto emotional moral values, and question why they hold them.

If we are playing a game where we are attacked by "shadows of doubt", then why is it that these shadows have no particular plot relevance. Some of the shadows you fight have lines that they speak, like V the Solitude's, but he is just an obstacle that stands in front of you, and antagonizes you for reasons that may well lie beyond your comprehension.

What if we had to make decisions where there are no clear-cut right answers, and we are then attacked by shadows of our own ("our" as in us, the players, not just the storyline character's) creation. We built our own doubts that now haunt us in our dreams. If we abandon the men to their fates, letting the lives of the many outweigh the lives of the few, then we are haunted by the shadows of the men we left to die, attacking you with your guilt in their deaths. If you instead leave no man behind, a different beast is created: One that pulls apart your emotional rationalizations for your actions, and attacks you for your fear of your powerlessness to save everyone, and potentially even summoning the ghosts of those whose lives you were willing to sacrifice to avoid having to face that fear.

I certainly hope the rest of you would find that as compelling as I would.

It asks you not just to make decisions, but to then rationalize why you made those decisions, and then tries to pull apart your rationalizations, and attack you with your own doubts, the way that the character is fighting against her own doubts on screen. It makes the combat sequence more than just trying to overcome some arbitrary obstacle that you have to fight because the game demands another fight scene, and turns it into a fight against an antagonist of your own creation, who relentlessly hunts you down from map to map every time you close your eyes to rest.

In fact, let's up the ante by combining it with the other things I've discussed before in the strategy and role-playing constructive criticisms rants: What if, when we make decisions, we gain powers based upon our decisions and our subsequent rationalizations, and the sort of personality type it indicates we possess. Then, we are attacked by the shadow of doubt constructed by the rationale of the other path we could have chosen. It acquires dark/hostile versions of the powers we would have gained. And then it hounds us in subsequent battles, teaming up with more and more shadows of doubt as more and more decisions are made, and demand they be rationalized. We aren't fighting and running from some random shadow that just happens to be named "shadow of doubt", we're emotionally invested in the shadow we create because they're our own alter egos attacking us for what we are and for what we aren't, and that makes the fight much more meaningful to the player.

This is the sort of storyline that is far better suited for a game about psychology than having a cast-in-iron storyline about a mystery where it doesn't matter if we understand what is going on or not, because we don't have to be engaged in a story about the consequences of some other person's decisions, but if we are facing the consequences of our own decisions, then the game demands our attention.

*** Trimmed for length, continued in next post ***

Wraith_Magus
01-22-2011, 08:54 PM
Choice and Role-Playing Part 2:

Finally, just to really turn the screws, let's talk hypocrisy.

See, thinking about that entire "genocide vs. brainwashing" moral argument, I remembered another Bioware game with an actually fairly similar moral choice. In Dragon Age: Origins, a game where they advertised not having any morality gauge at all, only the approval of your companions, they oddly somehow still made every choice pretty obviously come down to something that could be called "good vs. evil". (I guess old habits die hard.) *** Note: Massive spoilers ahead, skip paragraph to be unspoiled *** In one choice, however, you have to determine the fate of the dwarves by deciding whether or not to preserve a forge that sacrifices the lives of dwarves to create golems. Now, magic that consumes lives to create war machines can already sound pretty evil straight off the bat, but there's more to this one than this. You see, all throughout the time you are in the dwarven city, you get to hear about how, before dwarves created golems, they were being killed by the inexorably advancing darkspawn horde, and faced total annihilation. Then, they created golems, and they were so effective that they turned the tide of battle. At first, they used only volunteers, but eventually, they would condemn criminals or undesirables to be turned into golems unwillingly. After a while, the creator of the forge rebelled, however, and the whole thing is lost, and the dwarves once again face an inexorable march towards extinction. You can either destroy the forge, and doom the dwarven race, but avoid forcing these sorts of heroic or horrific sacrifices that are required to build golems, or you can use the forge, letting some dwarves be killed and turned into golems (which are mind-controlled) for the purpose of saving the rest of the dwarven species.

Unfortunately, the game does itself no favors by making using the forge be declared pretty unequivocally evil, even somehow being considered more evil than selling a child's soul to a demon for any of a variety of rewards, including as little as just a one-night-stand with said demon seductress. I have to admit, even though I found most of the choices in the game fairly straightforward, that argument of sacrificing the few for the good of the many really made solid sense to me, and I really dislike how apparently nobody but the character who always picks the "evil" option would side with you if you chose to save the dwarven race, and a few of your friends would outright fight to the death against you for making that choice.

However, let's say that in the "genocide vs. brainwashing" decision, you picked genocide, but in the choice about "extinction vs. forced sacrifices", you chose to make forced sacrifices. In the first, you say that free will is more important than survival of half an entire species, but in the second, you say survival of the species is more important than the free will of those who are forced into being golems. This creates a tension, a seeming problem where your moral values are at odds with one another in different situations. You better be darn good at rationalizing this one, or this is outright hypocrisy, and this brings up one final nasty surprise that can be set up: If a player gets caught in hypocrisy by having their rationalizations for one decision directly conflict with their rationalizations for another decision, then the shadows of doubt that those decisions create should suddenly leap forward tremendously in their power, since it implies that you really don't believe in much of anything, or your beliefs are situational, and as such, your ability to fight off doubts about your decisions is critically flawed, and those shadows can ruthlessly exploit that failing. It demands that the player be very sure they know what sort of rational moral framework they build for their characters.

Well, again, I figure this is something that might just be beyond what an indie band developer might be able to accomplish given what limited resources they have, but when trying to put my head to how to make this a more compelling game, this is the best solution I can come up with...

Well, the best for now, anyway. Given my current track record, I'll be back next Tuesday with something to add on to what I've already said.

NelsonTG
07-08-2011, 04:08 PM
Excellent tale fellow, but does perchance this game contain selectable headwear?

Nakaruru
07-08-2011, 04:57 PM
You pull up a thread 6 months old to ask about hats? As far as I am aware no it does not.

br4nd
07-08-2011, 05:47 PM
Excellent tale fellow, but does perchance this game contain selectable headwear?

Obvious tf2 reference or bad troll

ilikeponiesok
07-10-2011, 08:29 PM
Buddy, you weren't kidding when you said avalanche of text, but it was a good avalanche. I hope the coders read everything, especially about the threads in the fight. I have a triple-core processor, and my computer chugs like a fratboy. It's incredibly frustrating.