Category Archives: Computer Games

The places I’ve been

I went digging through my screenshots folder this weekend, and was pleased and amused to find in it a lot of fun memories of gaming over the last 9 months. A few highlights from my PC gaming this year (click to embiggen):

Taking on an airborne enemy in Borderlands 2, accompanied by three of my friends in co-op mode.

About to get pulverized by the final boss in FTL.

Heading into a post-apocalyptic ruin in Bulletstorm.

Hunting a dragon in Skyrim. In the background, a magician henchman blasts the beast with a beam of magical energy.

Great places to visit. More later, as I further excavate my way through the screenshots folder.

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F.E.A.R. of a flashlight

Been a while, eh? I bet you’re interested in what video games I’ve been playing. Well, you’ve talked me into it.

In my spare time, I’ve been playing through an old—and it pains me to use that adjective to describe a game released in 2005, which seems like it was just yesterday—first-person shooter called F.E.A.R. (with the periods; it’s an abbreviation for something). F.E.A.R. combines the venerable first-person shooter genre with the J-horror “scary long-haired girl” genre. So it’s like The Grudge, if Sarah Michelle Gellar had an AR-15 and was being constantly attacked by evil clone troopers.

It could be worse. You could be working for N.E.R.V.O.U.S.

It’s a neat game; it’s kinda scary, and the gun battles are fun in a way that I hope real-life gun battles are not. But one thing really stands out as meriting comment: the Flashlight.

You see, much of the game takes place in creepy, poorly-lit environments from which scary stuff is frequently jumping out at you. In some areas the lighting is so dim (or non-existent) that you cannot see at all. Fortunately, the game has a solution: you have been equipped with a Flashlight.

But not just any flashlight. You see, your flashlight has 20 seconds of battery life before it switches off and must be recharged, a process that takes about 5 seconds. So travelling through dark areas is a matter of racing forward while your flashlight battery drains, then standing still for a few seconds while it recharges; at which point you switch it back on and move forward for 20 more seconds.

One understands the design motive behind this gameplay device. To make sure you spend at least some of the game in the scary dark, illumination is treated as a somewhat limited resource. Doom 3, which came out a few years before F.E.A.R. and relied on a similarly shadowy environment to creep you out, did something similar and was roundly mocked for its solution: you can have your flashlight out, or you could have a weapon out, but not both at the same time. I didn’t mind this tradeoff too much as it forced some tough choices every now and then (and really, I’m OK with not being able to wield a plasma cannon in one hand a flashlight in the other); but it’s hard to argue against the typical gamer complaints: if you’re such a bad-ass space marine, why don’t you just duct-tape the flashlight to the barrel of your gun? Or hold it in your teeth like they do in Hollywood movies? Or tie it to your helmet?

Why, indeed. F.E.A.R.‘s attempt to make turning on your flashlight a tactical dilemma is even worse, though. You’re a high-tech commando employed by some awesome secret agency, and you can’t get a flashlight that lasts more than 20 seconds? That is the worst flashlight ever. Let’s be honest: my 4-year-old daughter has a plastic flashlight shaped like a bee that diffuses its quickening ray from the “bee’s” rump, and it’s a more practical flashlight than the one they give you in F.E.A.R.

Pre-order F.E.A.R. 4 from Gamestop and get the limited edition KR-31 "Killer Bee" flashlight with which you can illuminate all your foes.

It’s an interesting game design problem, though. Like most FPS games, F.E.A.R. proudly boasts an extremely detailed and realistic environment. Buildings look and are laid out like real-life buildings. Your guns behave in a way that your typical basement-dwelling game nerd would consider realistic. Bullets knock nicely detailed chunks of concrete out of walls and shatter windows; rooms fill with blinding gunsmoke after lengthy gun battles. All of the graphics and combat mechanics work overtime to be as life-like and immersive as possible.

Yet it’s also fun to force the player travel through scary areas without reliable illumination. And so in the specific case of your flashlight, the game chucks immersion to the wind and gives you a wonky lightstick that has to be “recharged” every few seconds, because that’s more fun.

You can have realistic and immersive, or you can have gamey and fun; but when both are present in the same game, it’s a big distraction.

I’m reminded of an excellent essay on the lasting appeal of the original Doom, which had infinitely less believable environments but which turned that into a virtue:

While some of Doom’s levels have a very thin fiction via their title (eg “Hangar”) and general texturing theme, if you actually explore them you find they only resemble real locations in the loosest sense possible. This is precisely what allowed Doom’s level design to present a wide variety of interesting tactical setups. Level designers didn’t have to worry about whether a change made something look less like a hangar or a barracks, just whether it was better for gameplay. This was especially critical for a style of game that was just finding its feet in 1993.

As the march of technology has allowed ever-higher graphical fidelity, virtually every FPS since Doom has attempted greater and greater representationalism with its environments. While games like System Shock began to show that a real sense of place can be a huge draw in itself, designers of such games will always have to manage the tension between compelling fiction and optimal function, unless you are willing to go all out and have the kind of weird, abstract spaces Doom has. I would love to see more modern games break with this conventional wisdom and see where it leads, if only in an indie or experimental context.

F.E.A.R. is fun and elaborately crafted. But so was Doom, and Doom didn’t feel obliged to painstakingly recreate entire office blocks. Doom threw together a minotaur maze, slapped blinking lights on the walls, and called the level “Nuclear Plant.”

Now if you’ll excuse me, my flashlight is fully recharged and I’ve got to get back to the shooting.

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Behind the scenes of Planescape: Torment

Via Gnome’s Lair, a great interview with Chris Avellone on Planescape: Torment. Lots of interesting tidbits here, although if you haven’t yet played through the game, there are some spoilers:


Well worth reading in conjunction with this interview is Avellone’s original vision document for PS:T (massive spoiler warning this time). It’s interesting to compare the vision document to the finished game.

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Exploring the wreckage of a more interesting age: when game backstories overshadow the actual game

In Bioshock, the high quality of the game's backstory can make it feel like you've missed out on all the good stuff.

Have you ever played a game whose backstory was more interesting than the game’s actual current setting and plot?

Over the last year, I played through Bioshock and its sequel, the appropriately-named Bioshock 2. Both are very good games. In both, you assume the roll of an “outsider” exploring the wreckage of a failed underwater utopia called Rapture; as you progress through the ruins, you learn about the politics, intrigue, and violence that “wrecked” Rapture and paved the way for your arrival on the scene.

The backstories of both games are filled with warring political factions, double agents, megalomaniacal villains (on all sides), betrayal, mass murder, twisted science, and sordid affairs. Or so is implied by the bits and pieces of history you pick up as you roam through the game.

By contrast, the plots that you, the player, experience are interesting, but rather tame by comparison. It is not inaccurate to say that in both games, you’re merely playing out the epilogue of a grander, more intriguing story that has already taken place.

I feel a bit ridiculous critiquing the Bioshocks on these grounds, because as it happens, both feature excellent plots and memorable characters. But both games teeter on the brink of an age-old danger in game design: making the game background so interesting and involved that it threatens to overshadow the players and their stories.

Exalted is the rare game that attempts to make its lost golden age a playable setting.

Related to this problem is the fantasy genre staple of the “lost golden age”—an era in the distant past in which everything was simply more awesome in every respect than the current age. Think Middle-Earth’s First Age; Exalted’s (uh) First Age, 4th edition D&D’s fallen empire of Nerath, all post-apocalyptic games, many sci-fi games, etc. (Exalted does get bonus points for actually publishing a sourcebook on its lost golden age.)

I know there are some excellent reasons that “golden ages” don’t make great adventuring settings—but surely I’m not the only person who, upon reading about the greatness of what came before, occasionally wonders why I’m not adventuring in that setting, instead of picking my way through its wreckage.

What about you? Ever played a computer or tabletop game and been more interested in its backstory than its current setting?

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The best and worst game box cover art

PCWorld has a list (with pictures), compiled by Chris Jager, of the best and worst video game box art. It’s worth perusing. There are some familiar images there, as well as a few I’ve managed to forget over the years. I like the inclusion of Psygnosis’ Roger Dean cover art; those were some gorgeous and evocative box covers (although as the list notes, they didn’t always seem terribly relevant to the game).

Kudos also to Jager for noting the stark but classy cover of Dune II.

I’ve rambled about game box art a bit here in the past; you may recall my professed admiration for Ultima 7‘s box art. Trying to think of additional game boxes that I’d nominate for the PCWorld list, I can’t help but think of Wasteland, whose cover art very nicely evokes the game’s feel:

Perfectly captures the game's mood, does it not?

Perfectly captures the game's mood, does it not?

But then, I’m biased, as Wasteland is probably my favorite computer game of all time. Unfortunately, my other favorite computer game, alas, falls into the “worst game box covers” category:



I’ll try to give Interplay the benefit of the doubt: given the character-centric nature of Torment‘s storyline, they probably wanted to grab gamers’ attention with a jarring view of the protagonist’s face. But instead of screaming “This is a beautifully-written story about sin, guilt, redemption, love, and judgment set in a bizarre and dreamlike astral city,” this box cover just yells “Hey, it’s a game about an ugly dreadlocked Frankenstein monster! Or possibly Rob Zombie!”

What other noteworthily good or bad game box covers can you think of?

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Witness to the end: the final hours of Tabula Rasa

Last night I witnessed the final hours of an MMORPG.

Several years ago, I read this fascinating account of the last days of Asheron’s Call over at Wired. That article, and this strangely touching collection of quotes and screenshots from the game’s final minutes, has stuck with me ever since. What does a doomed MMORPG look like in its twilight hours? Is it a barren wasteland devoid of players save for a faithful few long-timers mourning the game’s passing? A madhouse of activity as thousands of gamers crowd into the game to experience it before it goes away forever?

So when word came out late last year that Tabula Rasa was going offline in February (and more importantly, that its last few months would be free to play), I knew I had to at least check it out. My original intent was to play the game fairly heavily throughout February, trying to experience as much of it as possible before the end. Unfortunately, reality (and house maintenance, parenting responsibilities, the lure of other games) shot down that dream. Nevertheless, I wanted to be there for the game’s final few hours, especially when I read that the TR developers were planning to shut down the game with an apocalyptic in-game event.

The bad guys of the TR universe were going to launch an all-out assault, and everyone was going to die. The cities and bases that players had gotten to know over the last year were going to fall. Players would be pushed back to Earth for a final stand. At least TR players could go down in a blaze of glory.

So last night I logged into TR for the game’s final hours. I didn’t stay to the bitter end (1am my time; I didn’t think my church choir director would appreciate me showing up to the service crashing from a Mt. Dew-fueled late night gaming). But I was online for 2-3 hours up to about midnight.

So what was it like?

It was interesting.

Players gather to hold back the invaders as long as possible.

Players gather to hold back the invaders as long as possible.

There were a few problems. First, the game was crowded. For the first hour or so of the final event, the game was nearly unplayable due to lag. (Some players joked that the Bane apparently planned to defeat humanity by bringing their servers to a halt through lag.) From what I gathered in the in-game chat, a lot of players from TR‘s European and other servers (which had shut down earlier in the day) had flocked to this, the last online server, to replay the end again. Throw in who-knows-how-many curious observers like myself, and you had one crowded gameworld. The lag problem eased as the night went on.

Another problem was my lack of familiarity with the game. I’d only played a few hours throughout February, so I had only a basic grasp of how to travel around the game universe. It took me a while just to figure out how to travel to the “frontlines” where the invasion was expected to begin. Also, there was the little matter that my level 5 newbie character was probably going to last about 2 seconds against the sorts of epic alien invaders that were coming to destroy the world. (This did, in fact, turn out to be the case.)

I don't think my level 5 character is a match for these walkers.

I don't think my level 5 character is a match for these walkers.

But it was nevertheless a worthwhile experience. The invasion kicked off at 9pm Eastern time. In the hour leading up to the invasion, the in-game chat was so abuzz with chatter that I could hardly read messages before they scrolled off the screen. The game developers were present and participating actively in the chat. It was fascinating to read, with the same questions coming up over and over again:

  • Where was the final stand taking place? How do I get there so that I, too, can take some alien scum down with me?
  • Who’ll group up with me to visit [cool game location] or do [cool game quest] before it goes away forever?
  • Can the developers make me level 50 so I can slog it out against the invaders in the final stand? (A rumor was flying that developers were levelling people up to level 50 upon request. I did see one developer saying he’d do this if people asked him, so apparently it was happening.)
  • Lots of people thanking the game developers for creating the game and making it a fun world to play in.
  • People trying to sell in-game objects for high fees. (Capitalists to the end!)
  • People hatching crazy and impractical schemes for “saving” TR.
  • A lot of people whining about the lag. (Geez, people….)
  • A lot of people discussing which MMORPG they’d be moving to after the end of TR.

Then the end began. At 9pm reports started rolling in from players in various bases throughout the game world: the attack was underway. Aliens—big aliens, allegedly controlled by the developers themselves—were hitting bases. The chat started to fill with calls for assistance, players trying to rally others to defend important locations, other players calling out sightings of the ultra-powerful Neph (the Big Bad Guys).

Heading out to the frontlines for a final stand.

Heading out to the frontlines.

One by one, player bases fell and became inaccessible. Players made plans for a final stand on Earth.

And I had to log off.

All in all, it was a curiously touching experience, even for somebody like me who had no emotional tie to TR, its gameworld, or its community of players. TR wasn’t the empty wasteland that Asheron’s Call apparently was; a lot of people showed up for its final moments. There wasn’t a sense of a tight-knit community dying forever, although it was clear from the chats that people had formed friendships with other players and with the developers. One imagines that, in 2009, it’s pretty easy to relocate to another MMORPG when your favorite one goes offline. But there was still an edge of sadness as the bad guys swept through the game universe, shutting it down as they went.

All in all, it was a classy way to end a game. I hope TR‘s players and developers both enjoyed their final fling with the game. Let it not be said that TR didn’t go out with a bang.

It was a beautiful world, while it lasted.

It was a beautiful world, while it lasted.

[Note to Tabula Rasa veterans: if I got any of the details here wrong, I apologize—I’m just going by what I was able to gather from my few hours of play yesterday.]

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Ultima (6) Online

My recent installation of Ultima 7 put me in a serious Ultima mood, so I decided to poke around a bit to see whatever happened to Ultima Online. (Turns out it’s still around and doing fine.) And in the process of doing that, I came across this gem:

Ultima 6: the MMORPG.

That’s right—somebody took Ultima 6 (circa 1990) and has reworked it to function as an online RPG. The website shows that only one person is online at the time of this post, so I don’t think it’s going to bite too deeply into Ultima Online profits. But still.

That’s… crazy and awesome at the same time. Documentation on the site is scarce, so I’m not sure exactly what it all entails. Is this the full U6 game, but with the added ability to play through it with others? I think I’m just going to have to try this for myself.

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Ultima VII, sixteen years late

Well, I’ve finally gone and done it. After years of being pestered nagged lovingly encouraged by a friend to play through the Greatest Computer RPG of All Time, I finally broke down. Using Exult to get it working properly on my non-DOS operating system, I finally installed and started playing Ultima 7: The Black Gate.

U7 is widely regarded as one of the high points in computer RPG history. (My personal pick for best computer RPG is Planescape: Torment—we’ll see if that opinion changes after getting through U7.) I can’t speak yet about U7‘s quality as a game, but I will testify that I have long considered it to have the coolest game box cover of all time:


According to rumor, Ultimas 8 and 9 were originally intended to have matching covers in red and blue. Would that they had. Clean, simple, classy: this box art told the sophisticated gamer of 1992 that he was dealing with an RPG considerably classier than the luridly-illustrated competition:


I might also note that U7‘s cover was significantly classier than at least one previous Ultima cover, which was sufficiently demonic-looking to cause my parents to refuse to purchase it for me (and the mention of “astrological influences” on the back cover of the game box didn’t help):


But I digress. What of U7? I’ve only put a few hours into it, but thus far it’s quite good. The graphics and interface are extremely clunky, but it’s amazing how quickly you get used to that when the game itself is really good—try playing the original Doom sometime and you’ll see what I mean. For the first ten minutes you’ll be marveling at the crude graphics; by the fifteen-minute mark you’re as hooked as you were back in 1993 when you first played it.

If there was a point to this post beyond aimless jabbering, I’ve lost sight of it. Excuse me; I’ve got Ultima 7 to fire up.

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Revisiting yesterday's dungeons

Here’s a real blast from the past: the Dungeon Craft project, which aims to perfectly emulate the SSI “Gold Box” D&D games of the late 80s/early 90s. Judging by the screenshots, the graphics look a bit sharper but in general the look and feel is straight out of the original games.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s a cool project, and I always love to see people celebrating the great games of yesteryear. Many of those games are still as fun today as they were back then, despite outdated graphics. But I have to ask: are there really that many people interested in replaying the Gold Box games?

They were great RPGs back in the day—I spent a lot of time playing Pool of Radiance and Secret of the Silver Blades (and who could forget Curse of the Azure Bonds, with the memorably impractical chainmail armor depicted on its box cover?). But thinking back about those games, I’m really hard pressed to think of a way in which they were not completely surpassed, gameplay-wise, by later RPGs like Baldur’s Gate.

I recall the time last year that I sat down to replay, for the first time in well over a decade, the original Final Fantasy on the NES. That was my favorite game for the old Nintendo system and ever since encountering it in high school, I’ve kept it carefully placed on the pedestal of nostalgia as one of the greatest RPGs ever designed. But when I tried replaying it recently, I could scarcely go for five minutes before being overwhelmed by the tedium—endless, repetitive combats, over and over and over, just while traveling from one city to another. Somehow that was an acceptable part of the gaming experience when I was a kid, but these days… not so much. Revisiting classic games is most fun, I think, when the original game has never been built upon by succeeding generations of games—games in unusual genres or styles that were never replicated. But when a genre has been continually tweaked, evolved, and improved over the course of years, it’s sometimes rather painful to go back and try playing through the earliest iterations, no matter how nostalgic it feels.

That’s how I feel about the thought of reliving the SSI Gold Box games. They were a lot of fun back in the day. But would I want to sit down and replay an exact, unimproved recreation of one of them today? What do they have to offer that their grandchildren Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights can’t handily beat?

But hey, obviously somebody enjoys this, enough that they’re using Dungeon Craft to design their own Gold Box-style dungeon crawls. More power to them. (And I enjoyed Devil Whiskey, a modern recreation of the old Bard’s Tale games, so I’m not really one to complain.) Game on, then, wherever nostalgia may take you.

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Starcraft, again

This is news I’ve been waiting to hear for years now:

There were rumors that Blizzard’s big announcement would be a Starcraft MMORPG, but I’m glad they’re sticking to their single-player strategy game roots. It looks like they’ve kept the core Starcraft gameplay almost entirely intact. Usually, you’d expect a sequel to introduce tons of new gameplay elements, but in the case of Starcraft, I hope they’ll resist the urge to reinvent the wheel. The original is pretty darn close to perfect already. (Certainly, it’s the only game that has been continuously installed on every computer I’ve owned since 1998!)

Now I’m just hoping that when Starcraft 2 does finally hit store shelves, I’ll own a computer powerful enough to run it…

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