Category Archives: Culture

Remembering Tony Jay

Earlier this month, voice-actor Tony Jay passed away from cancer. Chances are you’ve heard his voice in a video game at some point in the last decade; his IMDB page lists out the various projects to which he lent his very memorable voice.

I first read about Jay after playing Planescape: Torment (which boasted an unusually high quality of voice acting all around). I was quite impressed by the voice of The Transcendant One in that game, and wanted to find out who had played that role. Since then, I’ve noticed his work in quite a few different games–he has a deep baritone voice that’s impossible to miss. Rest in peace, Tony, and thanks for contributing your voice-acting talents to our little corner of the universe.

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You say paLADin, I say PALadin

What is so hard to pronounce about the word “paladin”?

I do not exaggerate when I say that probably 50% of all people I’ve ever played D&D with pronounce it puh-LAD-in. I used to fanatically correct them, but now I don’t generally bother. What’s alarming is not that people pronounce it incorrectly; it’s that years of exposure to the incorrect pronunciation of the word is starting to finally get to me: in my most recent D&D game, I came this close to saying it myself.

Gaming has a bizarre sort of vocabulary, so I suppose it’s not too surprising that a lot of that vocabulary tends to get mispronounced. A few examples from my own storied gaming career:

  • for at least several years after I was first introduced to the term, I pronounced elite as “ee-light.”
  • I also pronounced melee as “mee-lee” for many, many years. In fact, I’ll be honest: I still don’t really know how to pronounce that word. I usually aim for a vaguely sophisticated, French-sounding “may-lay.”
  • one friend of mine (who is hopefully not reading this blog) consistently pronounced “salvo” as “slave-oh.” That’s not so much a mispronunciation as a complete misreading of the word. I never outright corrected him because I didn’t want him to lose face, but I did try to conspicuously use the word “salvo” in conversation (not the easiest task in the world) in an effort to correct him. To this day, I don’t know if it worked or not.
  • and of course, there’s the classic “My character is a level 5 halfling rouge.” That’s one I see spelled incorrectly all the time, although most people pronounce it properly in spoken dialogue.
  • (I won’t even get into “Cthulhu” and his ilk, because those are supposed to be unpronounceable.)

Any classic wordplay goofs that I’m missing?

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Innovation is dead! Long live innovation!

Gamasutra has an interview with game-design legend Chris Crawford. Lots of interesting ideas in there, but the gist of it can be boiled down to a theme I’ve heard more than once over the last few years: innovation in games is dead, and the industry is living on borrowed time.

I don’t know much about the economics of the game industry, so I can’t comment on the latter point. But I have done a lot of reading and thinking about the first point–that there is no more innovation in game design. Is the age of game innovation–an era of quirky, bizarre and sometimes brilliant gameplay ideas that weren’t pigeonholed into narrowly defined genres–long past us? Has the experimentation of the 1980s been quashed by endless sequels? Have we been reduced to simply re-playing fancier-looking but completely derivative iterations of the same two or three games?

Looking at the game shelf of your local Best Buy, it’s awfully hard to deny this. Lots and lots of sequels; lots and lots of unimaginative games that simply splash a fresh coat of paint over gameplay that’s ten or fifteen years old.

But I’d like to disagree a bit with the doomsayers–partly out of a stubborn desire to play the devil’s advocate, and partly because the gamer in me (who has played many excellent games in the last decade) rebels a bit against the implication that what I’ve been playing lately is utterly lacking in creativity.

One problem I have with these “innovation is dead” arguments is that they tend to be unclear on what innovation actually is. Words like “storytelling” and “narrative” get tossed around, but these terms are maddeningly vague. Nor is it clear that this sort of innovation will make for games that are more fun. I’d like to suggest that innovation does exist today, but rather than taking the form of avant-garde gameplay styles, it consists of taking tried-and-true styles of basic gameplay (of which there are only a finite number, after all) and stretching them in new directions. Consider the following, none of which boast truly unique gameplay styles but which have earned a place in many a gamer’s heart:

  • Starcraft, which introduced wonderfully memorable characters and storylines into the otherwise somewhat dry-and-mechanical strategy game genre
  • Morrowind, which with its open-ended world design lifted many of the gameplay restrictions traditionally placed on players in roleplaying games and left players to pursue their own path through the game
  • Planescape: Torment, which took the framework of a traditional computer RPG and used it to tell a story with real literary and emotional power
  • Quake, Half-life, and Neverwinter Nights, which through their extreme (and intentional) customizability, spawned a thriving culture of community-built game content
  • The Sims, the game that still defies efforts to fit it into an existing genre
  • Guild Wars, which built an interesting fusion of single-player gameplay in a massive-multiplayer game environment

All of these games came out in the “dark ages”–the last decade, in which innovation has supposedly been dead. Yet each left a profound mark on the gaming landscape because they took existing gameplay frameworks and spun them in new directions. That might not be the textbook definition of “innovation,” but if it produces games like these, I’ll take it.

The “innovation is dead” crowd laments the decrease in the variety of gameplay styles available. But I think this is just the natural result of years spent refining gameplay styles that were once new and original: over time, the truly fun gameplay remains, and the not-fun gameplay is dropped. It is unlikely that we’ll see more than a handful of entirely new gameplay styles in the next few years; what falls to game designers now is to stretch the existing library of ideas into unexplored territory. There is art and, yes, innovation in borrowing proven game elements and refining them into something even more fun.

My last game purchase was Galactic Civilizations II, an explore-and-conquer space empire game that consists almost entirely of elements borrowed from games that came before it. I just hit level 37 in World of Warcraft, a game that’s mostly built on all the good ideas from other massively-multiplayer games. And you know what? Both games are really, really fun. I’ll be there to cheer on the new and bizarre when it appears (Spore, I have high hopes for you). And I’ll roll my eyes along with everybody else at the release of the 80th game in the Madden series. But in the meantime, I”ve got some fun, if not strictly innovative, games that need playing.

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Surveying the hobby

Ohio State University, GAMA, and The Wargamer are asking gamers to take part in a hefty survey about your gaming preferences and habits. It took me about twenty minutes to go through the whole thing–a bit lengthy, but you wouldn’t want to miss a chance to rant and rave about this little hobby of ours, would you? Check it out, if you’re so inclined.

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If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha

Ever wondered how many hit points Buddha has? I came across this gem while reading Michael Dziesinski’s excellent Secrets of Japan sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu:

Granted, Buddha’s combat statistics are not entirely out of place in a Call of Cthulhu supplement, but I’m nevertheless amused to find a modern roleplaying game listing out stats for deities that people still actually, well, worship. Of course, Dungeons and Dragons started off the “stat blocks for your favorite deity” craze with Deities and Demigods way back when, but even that glorious book generally shied away from stat-blocking deities with much of a real-world following. (And no Judeo-Christian deity was ever reduced to a stat block; one can only imagine what Jack Chick would’ve said about that.)

In fact, with the exception of Secrets of Japan (which stats out a number of Buddhist and Shinto divine entities for inclusion in your next game), I’ve not seen much evidence that the classic “stat blocks of gods so your characters can kill them” tradition was still alive. (Recent iterations of Deities and Demigods have downplayed the “stat block” aspect and marketed themselves more as guides for incorporating religion into your D&D game–more practical perhaps, but less fun.)

It says something about the exuberance of the roleplaying community that TSR could at one time publish an entire “monster manual” full of deities from real human mythology for gamers to fight and kill. In fact, there is a long tradition in gaming of publishing “monster manuals” filled with creatures so ridiculously powerful that it’s almost impossible to imagine them being legitimately incorporated into any serious roleplaying game. Sure, it’s fun to find out how many hit points Quetzalcoatl and Osiris have, but can you look at their listed powers and tell me that any party of D&D adventurers would have a snowball’s chance in hell against them?

There’s just a sick pleasure in reading the stats of a being so powerful you’ll never, ever be able to actually use it in a roleplaying game. Iron Crown’s Lords of Middle-Earth probably marks the highwater mark of this trend; in it, we find the stats for such literary figures as Sauron and Morgoth laid out for us, as if our PCs will ever face them down in physical combat. In that tome, Morgoth the Dark Lord is statted out as–I kid you not–a 500th-level sorceror who knows every spell in the game and can warp Creation itself at will out to a range of 500 miles. This, in a roleplaying game where your character is quite likely to die of massive internal bleeding before reaching level 4!

And so I salute Secrets of Japan and its ilk for daring to go where few games tread in this age of political correctness and elitist roleplaying theory. Books like this are bravely statting out uber-powerful beings for your PCs to fight–and not just any uber-powerful beings, but ones that players in your game might actually worship in real life.

So happy hunting, my god-slaying friends. And once you’ve brought down the deities that stand in your path… just don’t forget to loot the bodies and take their stuff.

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