Romance in video games

Yahtzee has an interesting rant on the lack of good romances in video games, commenting that designers are usually interested only in the very beginning of a relationship, or in its violent end as a motivation for revenge. 

OK, but I think the real problem is that adventure games in general haven’t figured out how to do anything but shooting really well.  Some of them branch out into sneaking, and you can make a case for exploring or rearranging colored geometic shapes, but personal interaction (including romance) is at best relegated to the dreaded dialog tree. 

An erotic moment from DAO, or possibly the reverse

Now, this can be done well enough that it’s a fun addition to the game.  Bioware is usually good at this.  But the way they do it is by really good writing, which is pretty much not gameplay.  E.g., in Mass Effect 1 Liara’s conversation is interesting enough that we click the right options to sit through it, but as gameplay it’s just a couple of clicks leading to small cutscenes.  And there’s no skill in picking between three dialog options (hint: be nice to Liara).

I suspect the problem is not solvable for now, because any really satisfying personal interaction would require an amount of voice acting beyond even Bioware’s budget.  Maybe in ten years simulated voices will be good enough to make it possible.  Or you could go back to text, which can be cheaply produced in quantity– not a very attractive option, but if cleverly done it could be better than it sounds. 

E.g., it could be fun to get e-mails or text messages from other characters.  Both Vampire TMB and Mass Effect 2 used e-mails to some extent and could’ve done it much more; one advantage is that if you’ve heard the character speak, you’ll read their e-mails in their voice. 

How could dialog be made into an actual gameplay mechanic requiring skill?  One way is to require you to actually type text, like early Infocom text adventures.  ASK LIARA ABOUT GENOPHAGE.  The problem of course is that gamers, even pubbies, are much smarter than AIs, so you’d have to limit this to a tiny artificial language.  (But hey, game designers, I wrote the book on that, and I’ll be happy to design one for your game.)

Some games let you ask about characters or things in your inventory, which is promising.  Even if most of them produced the equivalent of “I have no opinion on that”, it makes the choices more interesting, as it would be tedious to run through every possible option. 

It’s slightly satisfying to invest points in a skill that allows better dialog choices… after all, it’s a tradeoff since you could have spent the points on defense instead.  But it’s not that satisfying since if the game depends on dialog much, it becomes a no-brainer to put points in Persuasion.

Dragon Age Origins allows you to influence a character by giving gifts, which in theory is a good idea as you have to know what they like.  (Does Alistair like sculptures of monsters, or is that Leliana?)  Though honestly remembering this kind of trivia is a little tedious; it’s the sort of thing players will go look up on the wiki.

Another option would be to use a minigame instead of picking from three or four choices (especially as almost always, one or two of the choices are obviously dumb).  For instance, in Mass Effect 1 there’s a mission where you have to persuade a Turian general to buck up and stop throwing his life away.  In real life this would require a full therapeutic intervention… a random chat in a bar is just not going to do it.  In ME it requires a couple of easy dialog choices.  If nothing else you can quicksave and choose randomly and not waste much time on it.

But what if you had three sliders– let’s say Compassion, Shaming, and Reasoning– and had to set the right value on each?  Now you have to decide or guess which combination of these techniques will work on this cantankerous, messed-up old dude.  If they’re each a ten-point scale, there’s a thousand possibilities, so randomly guessing won’t work.  (Skill investments could increase your wriggle room, so you don’t have to come quite so close to the right values.) 

(You don’t need a thousand possible voice response; the responses fall into categories which would hint which direction to move the sliders.) 

It could be more interesting yet if your options were resource-limited– e.g. being compassionate is wearying, so you only get so many compassion points at a time.

At the very least, more choices = more skill required = better gameplay.  I may try to create a demo of this to see if works out in practice…


Far Cry 2: Shooting People with Accents

From vampire to mercenary– I don’t think it’s a step up.  I picked up Far Cry 2 again, and I have to say, this is one beautiful country.

His name is Marty, but the tattooist misspelled it.

Really, despite the fact that it takes place in a very sunny country, it’s a much darker game than Vampire TMB.  You can take missions from the two contending factions, all of which involve murdering people.  For a change, in order to get your malaria pills, you can take missions from a local priest.  I just did one of those, and killed at least a dozen people along the way (mostly checkpoint dudes, which much be about the suckiest job for an NPC, outside “Hostage of the Really Evil Dude” and “Guy Who Sends One Adventurer After Another After the Lowest-ranked Mobs”).

I do think the game mechanics get in the way of the game somewhat.  To an extent it’s valid and cool for a game to require some effort to take care of the details: acquiring health and ammo, getting around, buying guns.  But it does kind of take up half the game here.  To get to a mission always requires taking out checkpoints (or barreling through them, which puts some angry armed dudes on your tail), while to get a new unjammed gun also takes a whole side mission.  (You can take the angry dudes’ guns, but they’ll suck.)  I’m out of rocket launcher ammo, and I have no idea where to get that, except that it’ll be another trip. 


Vampire: The wrap-up

I finished Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines: Too Many Colons last night, and I had nightmares.  Not about vampires, just car crashes and stuff, but it was that intense.  (This is a follow-up to my in-progress review.)

It was about forty hours of game, so I definitely got my $5 worth.

No, I'm not heaving. Gonna sneak up on those dudes and kill 'em.

In some ways VMB shows how much of a game can be subpar without ruining it, if it’s good at its core competence.  The graphics are too low-res; sneaking is absurdly simple; the vampiric disciplines for my Toreador were not phenomenal.  (They didn’t rise to the level of Neat To Use that you get with HL2’s gravity gun, or Hydrophobia’s water control, or Singularity’s TMD.)  But the story is excellent, the voice acting and music are great, and the atmosphere is compelling.  In the middle of a fight, for instance, you can feed on your enemies, if they’re human.

In some ways the best modernization of the game is Batman: Arkham Asylum, which has the sneaking and melee focus but does them ten times better, and also loads up on the dark gothic atmosphere.  (Of course Batman is a goody-goody, and doesn’t get to drink blood.)

Some of my friends say it’s quite replayable, especially if you swith to Nosferatu (who can’t interact with normal humans and have to travel by sewer) or Malkavian (who are insane and have a gameplay experience to match).  Maybe later.

I was happy with my build, which ended up with 8 melee, 6 ranged, 9 defense, 7 lockpicking, 7 sneak, 6 hacking, and 8 persuasion.  Forget research, inspection, haggle, and intimidate.  Seduction is fun, especially in the early part of the game.

Except for the boss fights, combat could be a little more challenging.  It wasn’t till one of the final boss fights, in fact, that I bothered to learn how to block.  I usually didn’t use the disciplines, either.  My favorite quest is probably the infiltration of the Golden Temple, where there are loads of enemies, including some very nasty ones with flaming crossbows.  (Those guys, and the vampire hunter dude, are almost the only enemies where you really need to use guns.)

Jack looks like a good guy, doesn't he? I mean, for a vampire.

There’s a side quest where you get (not too revealing) nude posters of some of the female character; one is visible in the screenshot.  I think this an adolescent rather than a misogynistic touch, and it kind of goes with the low-life milieu anyway.

There’s an interesting sequence where you’re trapped by a mad scientist who wants to test vampires and how to kill them.  He mentions that vampires are room temperature, which I think doesn’t fit with the main idea, that vampires can mix with humans (including touching and having sex with them).  Surely that would be awfully noticeable, even in balmy L.A.

My one dissatisfaction with the game is the ending.  You can pick a faction to side with– great.  I made a reasonable choice, and the ending I saw was just fine.  But from reading the walkthroughs, it’s almost the only reasonable choice.   The game ends up being more moralistic than it had appeared; it cooks up one faction as The Right Choice a bit too starkly.



The Mefightclub server, for some reason, loves Warpath.  It’s a five-point capture map with some nasty chokepoints that make for long, epic battles. 

A few weeks ago I created a more warpathy version of Warpath: Warwarpath.  I tried to make it 9 points, but TF2 didn’t like that, so it’s just seven.  The new final points are in an added base behind the previously final point:

The red base

Warpath is pretty rudimentary-looking, so I rebuilt all of the buildings and retextured everything.  I was going to re-create all the cliff walls, but it turns out there is nothing more tedious than redoing terrain in Hammer (Valve’s map editor), so I left that alone… though I did add tops to some of the cliffs, since it always bugged me that you could see into nothingness if you rocket-jumped.

In blue’s chokepoint

I’ve learned all too much about Hammer… I actually know more or less how to optimize maps now!   The game can’t figure out all on its own how to optimize what is and isn’t rendered; it needs help from the map designer.  I used to ignore all that; now I can create a fairly well-behaved map.

I still find it hard to predict what will make a map satisfying or not.  Capture maps are the trickiest, I think; people often find them confusing and/or statematey.  The new point doesn’t actually extend play time much, because people get to it pretty quick.  I’ve only seen it defended a couple times.  Most times we play, there’s a lot of back and forth on the three middle points.
There’s a chokepoint in original Warpath– a single zone on the way to the opposing team’s base, without alternate routes.  As this can be frustrating, I added a teleport that creates another way into the base.  I’m still evaluating this, but I think it’s a good thing: the final points are too easy to defend, because of the chokepoint.  (The teleport is only available when you’ve captured 5 of the 7 points.)
Mapping turns out to be a lot like coding, in that there are all sorts of obscure bugs that turn up.  We’re on about version 13 by now, as people keep finding little things.  A case in point: tonight’s game was very stalematey, and one player suggested that the problem was that one of the spawn points exits too close to the second-to-last point.  On consideration I agreed and changed it: it’s generally bad design to let the defenders spawn right next to one of their caps.
Here’s an overhead view of Warwarpath with points of interest marked (such as both teams’ path from initial spawn to the point):
When you play it, it doesn’t feel quite so twisty.
Right now the map is only available on the Mefightclub server; the bz2 file is about 10M.  If non-Mefighters want to try it, mail me.

Forgeries in the New Testament

I really liked Bart Ehrman’s Lost Christianities, which is about the various versions of Christianity in the first centuries after Jesus.  It seems I never blogged about it, but it’s a real eye-opener.  What we now take as Christianity used to be just one faction, and of course that’s the one that won, and got to select the canon. 

I just read his Forged, which is about forgeries in NT times, Christian and not, and whether any of them made it into the NT.  In short: yes, almost certainly.  In fact there’s little that scholars are willing to assign to the apostolic period at all… mostly about six of Paul’s letters.

Probably the most useful service Ehrman does is to dispose of an out– the idea that it was acceptable to attribute your work to someone else.  He shows that whenever the subject was discussed, by both Christians and pagans, forgery was condemned, and when someone was caught they were punished. 

Not that this will have much of an impact on evangelicalism.  We know a lot more about the milieu of early Christianity than before, but scholarly doubts about the NT go back a couple hundred years… indeed, modern fundamentalism was largely born in furious reaction against the “higher criticism”.  Evangelicals are going to continue to paper over the contradictions and to date the NT books far earlier than other scholars.

Unfortunately, Ehrman’s book is a bit thin.  It reads as if it’s been dumbed down– perhaps an editor told him to write for high school students.  And more importantly, the argumentation is not deep enough.  To establish that such-and-such a book is a forgery, he’ll point to a few contradictions or anachronisms and imply that he has a bunch more up his sleeve; but the result is that there’s only a page or two of discussion of any one book. 

E.g., many of the NT books claim an author who’s been traditionally identified with an apostle.  When there’s so much we don’t know about the early church, I think it’s just not provable who the author claims to be.  E.g. James says almost nothing about himself beyond his name, and we know that it was a fairly common name (unlike, say, “Peter” at that time).  Ehrman suggests that this means he expected his listeners to know who he was.  Sure; but then he says “There seems to be little doubt, then, that he is claiming to be the most famous James of all, Jesus’s brother.”  But that’s nonsense.  It’s not like we have an org chart listing all the Jameses of the time, or the postmarks on the letter.  There could be any number of church leaders named James, and any number of reasons the original recipients would know which one was meant… including unrecoverable data such as who handed them the letter. 

Ehrman also makes a good deal of contradictions… e.g. in the undeniably Pauline letters, Paul says it’s better not to marry, but the author of Timothy pretty much demands that church leaders marry.  And for that matter, Paul’s early letters seem to envision a sort of anarchic organization without clear leaders– services where anyone in the congregation might teach or prophesy or pray.

I find these particular examples reasonable, but not everything he points out.  Things change over time– it’s generally accepted that Paul’s teaching career spread over 20 to 30 years.  It’s certainly possible that his views or preoccupations, or the nature of Christian churches, changed over that time.

Likewise there are some serious discrepancies between Paul’s own accounts and those of Acts.  If you’re committed to inerrancy these are serious problems, but they’re not that overwhelming if you expect normal human behavior.  Actual historical documents contradict too, especially when it comes to reports of divisions and quarrels.  E.g. did Peter support the Judaizers (as in Galatians 2) or oppose them (as in Acts 11)?  Why not both? 

On the other hand, there are a lot of noncanonical books, and most of them are very clearly falsely attributed to the apostles.  It’s hard to finish the book without thinking that this whole attribution problem was a hell of a mess in a pre-printing society.  This is probably one reason science didn’t take off in such an environment… getting reliable information was a huge hassle in almost any area.

Floating libertopias ahoy

So the CEO of Paypal, Peter Thiel, wants to build a Randian paradise out on oil rig platforms, without building codes, drug laws, minimum wages, or gun restrictions, because really, what could go wrong if I build a skyscraper on my corner of the floating platform using drugged-out underpaid workers?  My friend Chris has already made all the good jokes so go read that.

Video games teach us that even in a disaster, everything is well lit

Thiel has said “they will not actually try to stop us until it’s too late.”  Haha!  Jeez, way to get your opponents’ views completely backwards.  Do you think we want to stop libertarians from moving to rickety platforms over the ocean?  Set up a PayPal donate button on that, stat.

Obama isn’t weak, he’s stymied by Congress

There’s been some understandable frustration with Obama on the left.  Some of this is justified: we’re in a high-unemployment doldrums where we desperately need some government stimulus, and Obama not only hasn’t fought for that but has signed onto the deficit reduction foolishness.  (If you’re worried about the deficit, the single best thing we could do for that is to get the economy rolling.)

I doubt Obama could actually have passed a bigger stimulus.  Stimulus plans aren’t popular or even well understood, except for wars against Nazis.  But it would have been nice if he would at least advocate for the right thing.

But that brings up the main point: for the most part, Obama hasn’t been able to bring the progressive utopia because he can’t get it past Congress.  He only had control over both houses for a year.  And then we lost the 2010 elections big time— largely because a huge fraction of the progressives who voted for him stayed home.  And since then there are huge limits on what he can do.  If you don’t like it, don’t get pissy and give up; go vote against the Tea Party.

Matt Yglesias approaches this question from an interesting viewpoint: comparing Obama’s record with Bush’s.  Bush didn’t have the easy ride that some folks paint, and he accomplished very little in his second term.  Some of his signature accomplishments, such as NCLB, happened because he found enthusiastic Democratic supporters.  That is, Bush wasn’t more persuasive or stronger; the main difference was that he didn’t face a united opposition determined to wreck the economy before cooperating.

The comments section is depressing though, like the dude who can’t think of a reason progressives should stop voting for Democrats.  I got one for you, idiot: so the Tea Party doesn’t win.


Doing the Laundry

I just finished the first two books in Charlie Stross’s Laundry series, The Atrocity Archive and The Jennifer Morgue.  If you live in a cave, these are a blend of spy fiction and Lovecraftian horror.  Bob Howard works for an ultra-secret British organization dedicated to fighting occult threats; the constant joke is that it’s a squalid bureaucracy and some of the sharpest threats come from the over-rigid accounting and HR departments.

Stross isn’t someone who can simply write pastiche; he has a coherent basis for his mythos.  He takes Plato’s concept of mathematical things being real, and posits that delving deep into mathematics is a way of breaking through to other universes, many of them inhabited by semisapient beings that want to eat our brains.  Programming is a form of mathematics, and this allows Stross to mix magic and electronics; Bob’s major weapon is his celphone, wired with all sorts of supernatural apps.

The Atrocity Archives is an homage to Len Deighton, whom I’ve never read; it starts out looking like some terrorists have got hold of an occult summoning spell, then the trail leads to Nazis.  Which brings up an interesting point.  There was a kerfuffle on Mefi recently about Captain America and whether a movie set in WWII should deal with imaginary Nazi supervillains rather than, say, the Holocaust.   And this book is a good argument that Hollywood got it right.  Stross references the Holocaust and gives it an occult meaning– murdering millions of people gives you occult power.  This verges on bad taste– it leaves the Nazis as evil but gives them a fantasy motivation; I think it would have been better to leave the subject alone.

There’s some very well done things in the book, though– mostly the exploration of a nearly dead world, and the slow realization that the real enemy is something worse than Nazis.

The Jennifer Morgue focuses on James Bond; the villain is a Blofeldian capitalist who aims to deal with submarine cthonian horrors.  The best bit here is the least Bondian: Bob is tied– telepathically– with Ramona, a female superspy working for the American equivalent to the Laundry, who happens herself to be tied to a soul-eating demon, her controllers’ way of keeping her loyal, as in fact she isn’t entirely human.  Having a mind-link with a woman is interesting enough, and her alien nature and attributes make the situation quite fascinating.  Plus there’s the factor that Bob has to worry about what his girlfriend Mo is going to think.

The golden age of spy fiction was the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear destruction gave superpower interactions a degree of both possible conflagration and absurdity that is well paralleled by Stross’s use of supernatural horrors.   The same sense of moral queasiness comes up… the Laundry seems to be a little too close to the horrors, and the idea that the rest of us have to be kept in the dark is rather disturbing.

The Bondian elements are mostly played for fun, though I think this skirts into campiness.  The villain is running a bit of magic called the “Hero Trap” which is based on Bond stories.  This is clever as meta-narrative, in that everyone has a reason to keep Bob out of the loop (if he knows too much it would spoil the magic).  But the best spy stories weave their deceits and paranoias without any such contrivance.

I think the second book is far better due to the Ramona subplot; but it’s marred by an unsatisfactory treatment of Mo, who also works for the Laundry and embarks on her own investigation.  Mo had a damsel-in-distress role in the first book, and it seems that Stross is making up for that by giving her a more heroic role.  But damsel-as-badass is just as shallow a role, and she doesn’t get enough pages devoted to her to get much personality, or any quirks or failings.  (Bob, by contrast, is a definite character: smart and plucky, but definitely without a flair for Bondian ultraviolence.)

Anyway, good books; now I want to look up the third book in the series…