The other night, after 5 years of putting it off, I finally completed Mass Effect. I see now why it’s so well-regarded.

Briefly, here’s what I think was awesome:

  • Elegant and succinct core plot. Mass Effect’s core plot was actually rather short; about 8 hours of play by my count. This kept it sharp and elegant. It employed some classic tropes, making it accessible, but did so with nuance and context so they seemed new and vibrant. It captured grand scope while remaining anchored in the motivations of individual characters. I’ll refrain from any more detail in case there’s anyone else left who’s not played it.
  • Sharply defined and well-rounded characters. Each of your team member’s motivations and background were unique, and the game wasted no opportunity to expand on these through background dialog, interjections, and excellent character driven side quests. Most other NPCs, too, were detailed in a believable way that made it easy to empathize with them and thus care about the eventual fate of them and their world. This also made side quests feel far less arbitrary and repetitive, despite the limited range of quest activities (kill this, talk to this guy, get this thing) and the frequent re-use of interior maps.
  • Excellent integration of PC customization. So many games let you customize your character’s appearance, background, and other attributes, then limit the impact of those choices to purely mechanical or cosmetic effects. There’s nothing wrong with either; character optimization is, after all, a valid element of play and a lot of fun. Furthermore, mechanical changes implemented well can afford different styles of play that lend a lot of depth – Deus Ex is one of the better examples of this. Mass Effect, however, does the best job I’ve seen in a CRPG of adapting the world and the plot according to those customizations by changing NPC interactions, providing different side quests, and, moreover, by reminding you of your choices at relevant points throughout the game instead of letting them fade away into irrelevancy.
  • Strong setting and backstory.The setting, as developed in in-game dialog and the game’s codex of background information, was coherent, internally consistent, detailed, and mostly plausible given current scientific understanding. Even the three notable exceptions of mass effect (necessary for FTL travel and comms, artificial gravity, and other space operatic tropes), biotic abilities (basically magic), and tech abilities (basically technology that’s indistinguishable from magic) were well fleshed out and justified. Two design details I really liked:
    1. Frequent opportunities to learn more about the world by interacting with computers and other objects, thus drawing you into the setting by reinforcing the feeling that you’re not just playing a game, you’re exploring a world.
    2. The detail, plausibility and novelty of many of the planet descriptions, and the look and feel of the planets you could land on really helped to establish a sense of place for the galaxy as a whole. Driving around lava plain looking for mercenaries is cool, but driving around an alien world with highly active geology caused by tidal effects from a nearby gas giant is way cooler. Maybe I’m just a nerd.
  • High production values. This one’s straight forward – if you design your world with care, but present it poorly, few players will ever take the time to appreciate it. If, however, you employ attractive and above-all consistent aesthetics throughout, in audio, graphics, and UI, it becomes much easier to appreciate the experience as a seamless whole and thus become immersed in it. Mass Effect does this well.

Shepard as I saw her

Nothing is ever perfect, though. I have the following critiques:

  • Failure to capture or emulate scale.  Space… is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is.It’s hard to believe, then, that all of galactic society is governed by a council of three. Or that the capital of the galaxy has exactly one trader, one med clinic, one banker, one dance club, and one seedy bar of note. Or that ambassadors would be satisfied with one room embassies. Or that there’s only 60 star systems in the galaxy. Or that all of the interesting features of a planet can be found in square patches 5 km each side. This is a classic problem for game designers – reality is big and complex, but your game has a limited budget, so you have to take shortcuts. There are strategies, however:
    • Allude to greater things. Players don’t need to see or interact with all of the parts of some system, but the presence of those parts should be acknowledged. Instead of forming a council of three, Mass Effect’s council members could have been presented as their spokes-aliens. Depict mass deliberations in the background of a scene, and have them occasionally consult off screen colleagues, and you’ve got something more believable. Add a sub quest that deals with alternate factions within the council, and the rest of the council feels real. Don’t dwell on it, but allude to its complexity. Mass Effect’s elevator newscasts are an excellent example of just this – you get the feeling that there’s a real news-hungry populace out there, eager to know what’s happening. But you never see them.
    • Don’t be limited by travel distance. Sure, travel helps players establish a graphical sense of place, and driving and navigation tasks make for fun game-play when done right. But in most games, travel is a means, not an end. Instead of trying to fit all meaningful resources into a single traversible environment, planets could have been represented as a globe or world map with places of interest marked. Planetary scale would seem more realistic and planets could be re-visited without repeating travel segments, and driving could be reserved for when it serves a dramatic or atmospheric purpose; approaching key installations, for example, as in the core plot. Weirdly, they got this right for planetary systems, but not for planets themselves. The same approach would have worked well for the citadel, too, and even reflects human behavior – most of us have a small number of favored stores & restaurants, ignoring the rest except for special occasions.  The same might apply to traders, med clinics, and other services.
    • Procedural generation. The most direct way to create a feeling of vastness is to actually provide it. Elite 2, for example, included a mind-bogglingly vast array of stars (100,000+) to visit in a game only 400 kB in size. Sure, 99.999% of these worlds were irrelevant, but they were there, and you could visit them, if you wanted. This made the universe seem real and huge, dispelling the feeling of game world as sandbox that so often becomes evident when you look back from the end and see that you’ve explored everything, done everything. Obviously, procedural generation needs to be supplemented with actual design, but this could be limited to customizing 50 or so important star systems. The key challenge here is keeping the UI uncluttered and keeping the player from getting distracted.
  • Uninterruptible animations. Games are interactive experiences, and interactivity is dependent on a sense of control. Unskippable cut-scenes and animations may be warranted in certain rare situations, but surely elevator animations are not. The only value I got out of elevators was from the newscasts in the Citadel, and even these only occupied 50% of the animation time. I really don’t understand why designers persist with this particular class of mistake.
  • Quest interiors. Mass Effect’s many secondary assignments involve visiting facilities on a variety of star systems throughout the galaxy. Disappointingly, only four fairly basic designs were used to represent these: the cargo ship, the above ground building, the below ground building, and the mine / cave. Slight variation was created by rearranging furniture and cargo, but the simplicity of these interiors really undermined the otherwise excellent senses of place created throughout the game. This was particular jarring in comparison to the detailed and diverse environments used for primary missions. Templates are a great tool for building large numbers of environments, but rather than whole area templates, they probably should have used room templates (a la Oblivion), as it’s much easier to explain regularities at that level (standard habitat construction components, for example).
  • Collection Quests. I understand why designers include collection quests, but I still don’t understand why they do them so badly. Their strength is that they appeal to our intrinsic motivation to complete easily measured tasks, and in doing so cause players to explore the world much more thoroughly. Their weakness, however, is that they can flatten the delight of exploration into an exhaustive grind. Instead of telling players ‘you must walk all over every planet to complete this quest’, games should tell players ‘keep your eyes open for hints about where to find these things’, then give them reason to trust that they’ll have ample clues to find them all, with perhaps some gradient of difficulty for the players who like searching for all of the eggs. It’s far more interesting to chase down rumours about the location of hidden artifacts than it is to drive back and forth looking for blips on your radar.
  • Inventory management. As previously mentioned, character optimization is a core aspect of RPGs, and that includes inventory optimization. On this front, however, Mass Effect fails:
    • Aside from a few special upgrades, all items in Mass Effect are labeled Name – Model, with name affecting the look of the item, and model the power. So, a suit of Onyx-I armor from the beginning of the game looks identical to a suit of Onyx-IX, but is much weaker. Upgrades, then, are a colorless matter of incrementally improving certain attributes, to the point that I found it more interesting to find a different but worse suit of armor than an purely better one. Furthermore, several makes and models were strictly better than others, meaning that whole sections of the inventory tree could be safely ignored. As a result, inventory optimization shifted from an exploration of cool things I could trick out my character with to a dry task of making sure all of the numbers were optimal. Borderlands provides a far better example of inventory optimization in an action RPG; another relevant consideration is the idea of ‘incomparables’, as explained in this episode of Extra Credits.
    • Inventory management is an element of gameplay best thought of as a task. You have specific goals in mind, specific choices to make, and can ignore much of the rest of the game while doing them. Like most tasks, then, the UI for managing inventory should be focused on helping you complete that task by providing relevant information when it’s needed and limiting the time delay and effort associated with each action. Mass Effect’s base inventory UI isn’t bad, but it’s not great – it only lists 5 items at once, for example. Where they really drop the ball, however, is in shopping for the rest of your team. You’re only able to modify team inventory when that team member’s with you, or when you’re on the ship (when that team member is not with you). Problem is, when you’re talking to a merchant, you can only compare their wares against the equipment of team members who are with you. So, you’re either reduced to taking your team to the merchant in small groups or writing down the key stats of their gear and managing it by going to their lockers in the ship. Managing this sort of information by hand is not fun and is precisely the sort of thing a good UI is meant to obviate.

All up, though, Mass Effect was excellent, and good motivation for me to move on to the next one.

Posted in Games, Reviews | No Comments »

Took a break to play Jonas Kyratzes’ recent short game “The Fabulous Screech“.

The Fabulous Screech - copyright Jonas Kyratzes

Play on Kongregate!

It was very sweet, and characteristically humorous, but sad. Without wanting to spoil it for anyone, let me just say that anyone who owns a cat will be able to relate to the main character, the eponymous Fabulous Screech, a cat who runs a circus featuring trained humans. Who knew they could talk!

It won’t take more than 20 minutes to play, and though it’s point-and-click, it, like Jonas’ other Lands of Dream games, is the sort where clicking inspires curiosity, not frustration, as almost every visible feature in every scene is clickable, and every clickable feature is visible.

Anyway, go play it. And click on everything. God’s bookshelf is particularly interesting – I was not surprised to learn he’s a Carl Sagan fan, and it was moving to see how all the other gods sent him birthday cards like that – there might be a culture war here on Earth, but it’s nice that all the various deities can be above all that.

PS – for those who read my last post on patronage, Jonas operates under another variety of patronage that you might find interesting – for a small fee, he and his wife, Verena, create pages of an encyclopedia detailing the Lands of Dream, dedicated to and based on guidance from the contributor. I gave a while back, and got in return the World Mushroom, an entry that captures some of things I treasure rather excellently. For a little more, he’ll even frame and send you the original.

Posted in Games, Reviews | No Comments »

Got 10-20 minutes free? Play “Neverending Light“. The games starts with you and your character taking a tour through a cave system full of stalagtites, stalagmites, and awesome voice acting. Needless to say, things go horribly wrong.

Part 1 of an ongoing series.

Posted in Games | No Comments »

Like most things, games evolve. Modifications arise over time, sometimes by design, sometimes casually – examples include deliberate design, house rules, misinterpretation, and our innate tendency to search for parsimony and avoid unnecessary complexity. Since game designs are socially transmitted between both players and designers, and elements of game design can be recombined to form new games, these modifications accumulate over time, spawning new games that compete with others for attention and favour. Survival of the funnest, so to speak, with design patterns as genes, and boredom as the key factor leading to game species extinction.

The point here isn’t to assert that the evolution of games is the same as biological evolution, but to draw a few interesting parallels:

  • Firstly, games should continually change to suit their environment; that is, the minds and taste of current gamers. Read simplistically, game evolution suggests that games will necessarily become more fun, more accessible, and more addictive over time. However, though this may occur on a localized scale, changes in taste and social context over time will prevent this, particularly with regards a given design’s more flexible qualities. This mistake is similar to that in which a modern biological species is held to be somehow more evolved and thus better in some way than an earlier species or a species that exhibits characteristics similar to earlier species. Later designs are not necessarily improved designs.
  • Secondly, a relationship exists that mirrors that between biology and geography in biological evolution and, furthermore, has similar consequences leading to speciation. For example, in biology, allopatry is the phenomena where a population splits in two by some natural barrier and thus evolves into different species. In games, there is an obvious example in the many flavours of football, or, more recently and more abstractly, in the way that early war games evolved into a vast array of different role-playing games based on divides of geography, player age, taste, and available play time, all of which characterize the different ‘brain ecologies’ in which games live.
  • Thirdly, the arguments used to defeat the blind watchmaker argument used by creationists can be used to conjecture a way in which games and play could arise spontaneously (click here for a good video demonstrating the blind matchmaker version).
    • Assume the existence of creatures capable of making a distinction between those activities worth doing for their own sake and those not, and capable of combining aspects of those activities to produce new potentially worthwhile ones.
    • Over time, the process of living will cause those creatures to engage in many activities. They are thus likely to randomly discover worthwhile activities.
    • Given freedom to act, those activities are likely to be repeated.
    • Two factors now come into play. Firstly, the original activity will vary each time it is produced due to circumstance and memory, and, secondly, activities may be combined.
    • As this process repeats itself over time, new, more complex forms of worthwhile activity will arise. The resulting activity is play.
    • To move from undirected play to games, we need formalisms such as rules, restrictions, and goals. These might evolve on their own or they might arise in response to social pressures, a desire for commonality and consistency, or even just desire for an economy of expression. It’s not clear whether they require higher function and language, however – perhaps animals can play, but only humans can play games.

None of this is really that revolutionary – game designs are just memeplexes, and Dawkins has already argued quite convincingly that memes and memeplexes evolve along similar lines to genes.

Point three, however, has an interesting consequence that I’ve not seen discussed elsewhere. Assuming the general idea holds, it has only minimal assumptions that any life with rudimentary language and intelligence would most likely possess. Therefore, this seems to suggest that games and play are an inevitable feature of all intelligent life. This seems somewhat intuitively obvious, but its nice, I think, to see why it should be.

Tags: ,
Posted in Games | No Comments »

I love moral ambiguity in games. I love characters who struggle with intense yet believable emotions, and who are conflicted by their actions and beliefs to the point that they nearly destroy themselves. I love the simple humanity of this, and I love it when this is set against a bleak, gritty setting that offers scope for exploring the darker side of human nature without being too pretentious. I’ll take a plot where simple people tear themselves apart over one in which heroes save the world any day.

I finished playing Iji the other day and it fits that characterization well. Here’s the trailer:

And, here’s why I liked it:

Plot & Character

The game begins with the world’s destruction in a massive alien assault. Any hope for a happy ending is gone before you it has a chance to materialize.

Iji wakes up in a lab in an underground base, having been modified by now-dead scientists with game necessary but plot irrelevant nanotech. She’s confused, lost, and angry at the world in a hopeless, self defeating way. Even worse, she shortly discovers that her brother is still alive, but, though he tries to help her, has become hardened and cold, and expects Iji to get over her fears and save the world.

The basic premise isn’t particularly novel, but the way Iji plays out really works. The insanity of the situation she’s in isn’t dismissed as irrelevant with a short angst session early in the game, rather, she breaks down and cries from stress at various occasions, and it just works. She’s not a hero type, she’s just a person, stretched to the emotional limit.

I just loved this – I can’t recall ever seeing a game in which the hero breaks down and cries over their victims. Probably no surprise given the constant reminders that she’s slowly turning into a killing machine. As you play, you pick up logbooks left behind by aliens; early in the game you find a diary entry in which an alien scout waxes lyrical about his lady love, stationed elsewhere in the facility. You can imagine that this doesn’t turn out well.

Anyway, I won’t go into any more detail for fear of spoiling things, but this was one of the most emotionally satisfying games I’ve played in a very long time.

Level design

Most of the levels are somewhat linear with occasional secret areas. What’s interesting is that you can approach them in several ways. By no means do you have to go on a rampage, killing everything in sight. In fact, it may well be to your advantage not to (certainly, in the later levels you’re almost forced to just run away from things lest they set you on fire). Furthermore, the game’s weapon options allow for a variety of different tactics in confronting your enemies.

Even more interestingly, though, you can play the game as a pacifist. That is, you can make it through the whole game without killing more than two of the game’s several hundred aliens. Unsurprisingly, this results in the plot taking a fairly different direction.


With a range of different weapons combined with various special abilities and an attribute point system, Iji creates a wide range of options for the connoisseur of killing. Different weapon choices require different styles of play, and not all weapons are effective on all enemies. Multiple weapons aren’t special in themselves, but few games use them to produce diversity of play in the way that Iji manages to.

In some games, only the boss fights require much thinking and observation in order to determine how to defeat a given set of enemies, but in Iji, this is frequently the case. Even on normal difficulty, you have to use your brain.

Iji takes about 3-5 hours to completely, and is definitely worth the time if you can find it. It’s a free download for Windows at Remar Games.

Oh, and the music’s pretty awesome – make sure you grab the high quality soundtrack. Particularly the closing credits track by Lifeforce.

x-posted in a bunch of places

Tags: , ,
Posted in Games | No Comments »

One thing that’s really fascinating about virtual worlds and MMOGs is the avatars that people choose and the relationship between their choice and their physical selves. It’s pretty easy to find statistics showing that gender bending is a pretty common practice (for example), but there’s not been a lot of research looking at people choices of character race and shape.

A while back, Nick Yee, a research at PARC, published some statistics he’d gathered during his PhD on the relationships between age and gender on player choices of race, alignment, and type of character class. Graphs and notes on those results are available here.

More recently, he’s published another set of results concerning player choices of character shape; that is, whether their character is relatively taller or shorter, how attractive they are, and so forth. These are pretty interesting results, though there’s nothing really surprising. What’s really interesting, though, is the graphs he’s produced looking at the relationship between preferences for different avatar archetypes and for different styles of play.

Anyway, if you’re at all interested in self representation or online games, go take a look. He publishes these results via a blog he keeps called ‘The Daedalus Project’ – it’s not particularly high traffic, but what he does post is well worth reading..

Tags: ,
Posted in Games, Metaverse | No Comments »

    Reviews, rants, reflections, arguments, scrawls, ideas, refutations, pontifications, rhetoric, records, accounts, journals, scraps, plans, authentic articles of thought.

    No artificial ingredients.
    May contain pretentiousness.
    May reflect personal bias.

    • Hey baby! Do you want to taste the sting? #PostsThatNeedContext 2011-12-29
    • Today's new word: apophatic - adj, beliefs that god can only be known in terms of what it is not. Opposite, cataphatic 2010-01-24
    • Naptime over. Now becoming fully cognizant of all of the little things I need to catch up on. Foo! 2010-01-14
    • Anyone got suggestions on Twitter clients for Windows. I'm using twhirl - got anything better? 2010-01-14
    • More updates...