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ITWYM? Karma (intro rewrite)

Not really the return to this that I would have liked, but an interesting idea all the same.

With such a clichéd beginning, it seems better to just throw out the entire thing and introduce a much more compelling premise. But that’s not quite the point. I feel compelled to delve deeper into just why I have such a big problem with this game’s intro, but that would just be dull.

So, striking a compromise. As there is not much richness to draw from and the game is a very simple platformer, I went with second person, present tense. A new call to adventure that hopefully feels less like a rejected Power Rangers script.

///

You sit at the end of the table, perusing one of your many texts. There is a television in your living room, but you have found it disconcerting of late. Too many breaks in the images. Too many headaches and troubling ideas. If you could only recognise the source of their inception, you might be willing to switch the telly on again, but you have no such reassurance.

Although you are not an avid reader, you do have a modest collection of books. Most of them you inherited when your father passed. He had not been much of a reader either, but he had apparently been interested in the cultivation of the mind. Much of the content in his books feels over your head, but you enjoy the diagrams and the occasional mad philosophy.

A knock at the door rouses your interest from the crisp pages. Leaving a bookmark in between a dissertation on the ease of human flight, you get up to see who it is.

Your home is in a bad part of town. There are many chains keeping you in and the rest of the world firmly out. You must hunt down six keys to release the chains if you wish to see who is attempting to visit you.

The question is, do you wish to have a visitor?

///

Then you could jump around looking for your keys, collecting the things–or, after a revolutionary fashion, you can choose not to hunt down the keys at all, and receive an effect that will actually move the story along a different path. Does that seem so difficult?

Should you hunt down the keys and open the door:

///

The door creaks as you open it, protesting at its unexpected use. You attempt to peek through, only to have the door slammed open. It strikes you on the nose. Tears spring to your eyes, and you stagger backwards.

A woman brandishing something thin and dark stands in your doorway. Her posture glows with confidence, and as you blink past your tears, you can see that she is conventionally beautiful. She barks something over her shoulder, in a harsh language you do not understand, and then a man several inches taller and wider than yourself enters your home. Hunched and menacing, he reaches for you.

You blanch, then leap for the pistol you keep hidden under the table.

Again, the woman speaks in that harsh language, and you find yourself unable to move. The large man looms over you, his figure so enormous that he casts a shadow over his own body. When he strikes you, you feel as though his shadow has swallowed you whole.

Sometime later, you awaken in a glass room. Your hair has been cut, and you are dressed in formal clothing that you have never seen before. A quick glance about the room reveals only a stark white bed, a curtained toilet facility, and a low table.

Gingerly, you sit on the edge of the bed, rubbing your face. A strange series of bumps and grooves meets your fingers. With a gasp, you realise that some kind of device has been attached to your head.

///

If you don’t answer the door, something else happens.

But am I making any kind of point? Drop the destiny nonsense. This here is a story about some everyday person being kidnapped to be used as a lab rat. Or something. He or she can rise to heroics through character development, truly deserve nobility instead of being forced into it because a prophecy/oracle/master said so. Or he/she can fail miserably, descending to the basest cowardice.

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Super Solvers

One of the other things I did today was sit down with Dither to watch a Let’s Play. I was making steak and eggs and he was making garlic chicken, and we were trying to decide whether to watch a movie or an episode of Farscape or something, and he thought of looking up a Let’s Play. We discussed and mutually shot down a few–I’d played this, he had no interest in that, one of us would rather play the other–until he came up with one that I did not find familiar and had no objection to.

Super Solvers Treasure Mountain.

We looked it up on the unfortunately abysmal lparchive.org, only to find that it is apparently like the Agony Booth was (and should have stayed, their video series are awful). So we went back to Youtube. There was a let’s play posted there, but the person playing was dull at best and clearly didn’t know how to play. Since Dither already knew how to play and I figured out how to play within about a minute, this was pretty frustrating.

I paused the video and found an abandonware site, where we downloaded the game. A bit of filework, then I opened up DOSBox, and we were off.

For those who don’t know, Super Solvers was a series of educational games put out by The Learning Company in 1989. Treasure Mountain was the third installment in the series. In it, the series’ villain has stolen all of the treasures, and it’s up to the player character to find and collect them, travelling up the mountain in the process. Fairly simple, but that is certainly the best policy.

The gameplay can be summed up thus: Capture elves carrying scrolls to answer a riddle and gain a clue. There are three clues on each of the mountain’s levels. You need to find the one thing on the level that matches all three clues, which will give you the key needed to move to the next higher level. However, the treasures are hidden in objects that only match two of the three clues. There are a total of 300 treasures to be found, and although you can only collect two treasures per level of the mountain at the beginning rank, as you collect treasures, you rank up and gain the ability to find more treasures per level.

This game is based around its own replayability. There are only three levels to the mountain, which means that at the earliest level, you can find a maximum of 6 treasures. When you have found 25 treasures total, you rank up and can find a maximum of 9 treasures in a playthrough.

All of this, I figured out with inference and the tips in the game. The riddles are very, very basic math, word puzzles such as finding rhymes and similar beginnings and endings, as well as similarities between other words (such as bird, bee, and moth). It’s a great game for kids, but I enjoyed it too. The UI and controls are non-intrusive, and the replayability is achieved by a simple formula and just enough random elements to keep it from being just repetitive.

This is what we’re missing in games now. Effective, successful simplicity. Especially JRPGs, which have little to no replay value (made worse if you hate the story).

The music is also somehow protected from becoming too repetitive or irritating. It sounds nice enough and it repeats at just the right frequency to pass out of notice rather than annoying the player. The graphics are obviously dated, but in a way that is retro and pleasant, not “Oh my gosh we used to settle for this.”

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A Weak Character Can Destroy A Work

This was part of my last post, but it turned into a writing rules of thumb post. Even if it seems like it only contains this one notion, it’s a big enough lesson or whatever that it overrides the rest of the content.

NEVER WRITE A FRAMING STORY WITH A WEAK MAIN CHARACTER IF YOU PLAN HIM OR HER TO CARRY THE FRAME THROUGHOUT A SERIES.

There. That is the most major problem with this series. Desmond, the main character whose life and actions take place in the game’s present–and therefore the ONLY hero who is not dead and unable to make a choice that affects the outcome of the story–is flat, boring, and without any personal drive or distinction after the first game.

By no personal distinction, I mean there is nothing that makes him special. He’s just… not things. It doesn’t help that in the second game (and ever after), he is dropped into a group of characters who, though a bit flat, have things that they are.

  • Lucy is an empathetic leader, stressed out and a bit dull. One of the weaker characters, but then, she’s closely linked to Desmond, and I think that the characters’ personalities decay with each game. So it makes sense.
  • Shaun is a history buff with a short temper and a chip on his shoulder. There is a lot of implied history and personality in this character. Until he becomes an overt Snarky Brit stereotype, thanks to the decay.
  • Rebecca is an adrenaline-junkie programmer. I find this supremely annoying and possibly badly done, but it’s a personality type. She also clearly had a life and never lost the character that came with it. Decay didn’t seem to hit her as hard, but she’s not that deep.

And… Desmond. Oh Desmond. How I wish I could hate you. But there is barely a you to hate.

Okay, I did want to give him a bullet to go in here, to make my point, so here it is.

  • Desmond is not a leader or plagued with self-doubt. Desmond is not well-educated or self-taught. Desmond is not excited or ambitious. Desmond is not passionate. The rest of the group IS.

Desmond is just Not. As though “not” is a bloody adjective.

In the first game, the framing device and Desmond’s wispy characterisation worked fine. His situation worked as a wonderfully subtle parallel to that of the hero he was vicariously becoming. They each carried the theme of being trapped, but Altair was able to (seemingly) freely wander his world. What trapped him was perception, lies, and loyalty.

Desmond’s background and character were fleshed out almost entirely through dialogue, in a white room that he could not leave, save for another plain room that contained a bed and a wardrobe. If one chose to speak to Lucy throughout the game, then they both received great characterisation.

His background was not a big fat interesting mess. But he didn’t have to be bound to it. That may well be where this all started to fail. They never moved Desmond beyond the constraints of his initial character. Even after he escaped, the game still needed him to be in the Animus, and although the situation outside of it has changed, Desmond has not.

He still has nothing that he personally wants or even likes. There is no sign of the affect that his background would have had on him, aside from the plot-relevant side effects of spending too much time in the Animus.

This could have been circumvented so easily. Just make the guy a reader. He didn’t even have to read anything good. Like most people, including me. Comic books, Sarah Palin’s book, only the smutty bits of romance novels–we don’t even know if this guy likes porn.

Give him a guitar. Make him a dancer, struggling with the changes he has to make to the way he moves, while trying to marry some of his previous discipline to free-running. Show him teaching Shaun how to make origami tanks. HAVE HIM PLAY PAPER FOOTBALL WITH REBECCA, SOMETHING.

He seriously has nothing. It’s almost like Twilight, which should make us all weep. Video games have a rich plethora of tools with which to spin narrative. The first game managed it, and the second managed to make a game about an Italian that was shoehorned into the series. When I’m not in a bad mood, I feel like it never really continued.

Which is kind of sad, all things considered.

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To Dream the Impossible Dream

I’m not really sure what I want to write about today. Yesterday was one of the nicest, laziest Saturdays I have had in a long time. In spite of my complaints, I managed to make it through a good chunk of Brotherhoods’ plodding beginning (a term that I believe umbrellas everything until you have unlocked the gimmick of basically commanding a very small amount of troops).

Still annoyed about things, but probably less likely to fly into a rage. The implementation of 100% Completion may have been a good idea. Unfortunately, I can’t tell through the haze of poor implementation thereof. Any game that makes you feel bad or angry for not getting 100% has failed.

It’s even worse when the game also lies about the requirements. “Don’t lose any health” in a game that safeguards loss of a full point does not mean the same thing as “Don’t get hit at all”. You can take what is basically “almost”-damage, but end the fight with completely full health–and then see the huge red and white FAILURE stamp on the side of the screen.

But enough of that.

Yesterday, I mentioned how I would like to see the story written in such a way that certain things were either fixed or removed. I also said that I could never do it, as I can’t write fan-fiction… and then I proved it later by writing an afterstory for the offspring of my hero in Quest for Glory.

Another reason that I don’t think I could write a fixed narrative or even repairing novelisation for Assassin’s Creed (and it would be for the whole series–not because the first game even needs it, but because a sufficient repair would need to agree with itself throughout) is because I do not have an entire team of researchers to gather up info on the history that I would need.

Who knows, I’d probably do it myself anyway just because I like reading about world history. But I don’t think I’d ever feel like I had a good hold on any culture I read about. Not enough to write a non-anachronistic narrative of the polish that I want.

But I could outline it. Someday. There are great ideas in this series, both for games and for stories. Yet it suffers from such poor character writing that I can’t get over it.

In fact, it suffers from it so hard, that I had to break up my original post into two. Mostly because the second half of it seemed to be much more about writing than even my disappointment with the game’s characterisation.

Someday, I’ll try to outline it. But I think I’d do so with it in mind as a novel. There are a lot of things I wish the games had done, which could only be done in games. That’d just have to be a simultaneously wistful and angry list.

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Is This What You Meant? Inotia 3

This time it’s quite different. Inotia 3: Children of Carnia is a role-playing game available for free on the Android Market. This is, as one might expect, thanks to micro-transactions, but I find that in games like RPGs, micro-transactions can actually be ignored if so desired. There are ads too, but you just have to close them and get back to your game.

On the plus side, while the game is mostly free, the graphics are stellar. The portraits are particularly lovely, although the sprites are a little too…jumpy for my tastes. It may not have the budget or aesthetic sense of 3D console games, but it is way above what one would expect to play on a phone or tablet. (for the record, I play it on my tablet.) The music is forgettable, but not annoying. The gameplay is comparable to a Flash or SNES RPG.

However, the story is bumpy at best. I played for about an hour and a half to two hours, and while the story never actively lost me, it didn’t grab me either. I played the game while watching old episodes of Castle, and nothing in the game took my attention so much that I had to pause the episode, apart from missions that named locations. And then, I only had to pause so that I could commit the boring standard-fantasy name to memory for a few seconds.

The first problem is the game’s hook. Not only is the intro utterly indistinguishable from anyone’s first attempt at an RPGMaker title, but it is also nearly identical to (part of) that of an RPG that came out for the Playstation in 2000, Legend of Dragoon.

In the section of Legend of Dragoon’s intro that I’m talking about, the main character, thinly (if at all) characterised, tromps into the village to find a girl who is important to him, and is attacked by the people who destroyed the village.

In Inotia 3, a warrior with long white hair, presumably the main character, runs to a spot in a dark village looking for “Irene”. He fights some goblins, assumes they took her, and runs to find her. When he does, a big satanic demon fights him, and then cuts off the fight in the middle to make a speech about the innate violence and evil in humans, and basically corrupts Irene into attacking her brother… with insta-magic.

The best part of this predictable, empty mishmash, is…well, it’s two things, really. First, is that although the dialogue bar has names attached to each person’s speech, the supposed main character always has the infamous ??? tag. Even though Irene says his name.

The second best part is that after all that, our real hero just wakes up in a forest. It was a dream.

There are seminars about why that is a bad beginning to a story. This is a perfect example of a dead-horse hook. A hook that has been used to death. In fact, the scene itself is one. I like that they’re paired. It makes it easier not to care whether I like the game or not.

To make things even better, the second, what I will call “true” beginning of the game, is even more rote than the first. Your character is a young man being told to kill creatures to obtain x number of items in preparation for his coming of age ceremony. I kept waiting for someone to say, “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

And just about his only noticeable character trait is that he has a crush on the other kid growing up in the ceremony. She’s a pretty girl. He can’t tell her how he feels… because he’s in a Japanese story.

Charlie Brown made wishy-washy a personality trait. This kid, Lucio, merely owns two stereotypes–coming of age ceremony and cannot confess crush.

As one might expect, the next part of the story is a fetch quest that is apparently a way to celebrate being adults. Really. “Go get us a holy leaf, now you’re bigguns,” basically. “We all celebrate it that way.” Also as one might expect, the monsters on the way to the sacred tree are pushovers, and then, still expected, the small-time quest is interrupted by something ~mysterious~ that sends your party on another quest.

The only thing I didn’t expect was that the girl Lucio has a crush on, a (sigh) predictably healer girl named Ameli, is the real hero. Although probably oblivious to Loser-o’s crush, she is civil-almost-friendly to him, and takes charge in both events where the first major quest is uprooted and then expanded.

It’s so easy to spot what’s wrong with this game’s story. But is it easy to fix? We need the right hero in the spotlight, a more interesting hook, and the premier main quest needs to be more original.

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Is This What I Discarded?

I mentioned it in the proper ISWYM? post for Folklore, but it bears repeating. The first go was seriously awful. Luckily, I figured out what the problem was before I went ahead and posted what I had. I was following the intro without just taking the basic information and running with something different. I was just trying to tell the story better instead of rewriting it. That story cannot be told better with events and actions the way they were. The drama was senseless and hackneyed. The characters’ actions made no sense, and they were both flat as pancakes.

I spent so much time on characterisation that description went to the dogs.

Anyway, just so I don’t have to throw away writing, which I hate to do, here is the discarded stuff that I wrote first.

(Ellen)

The waters had been calm when I had chartered the boat. My captain had not seemed happy about taking me out to Doolin, but I hadn’t been in a mood to take no for an answer. Two weeks before, I might have let him scare me down with his stories of sudden storms and the dead’s influence over the island. Back then, I had just been a salarygirl, working for a wage and leaving the pub late on Friday nights. I drank as much as I could get away with. I liked to read.

With the air crackling like cellophane and pouring down on me in buckets, there wasn’t much chance of a good read nor a shot of whiskey. I backed away from the rail to find a comparatively dry place. I had to read the letter again. Every time my resolve flagged, it helped just to hold the envelope.

I knew it by heart anyway. While the captain yelled at me that he “wouldn’t go no closer,” I ran the words over in my mind. My mother, missing from my life for nearly twenty years, had told me to come to Doolin. I’d gotten horrible marks in English and Irish, language was not a skill of mine. But I knew the difference between come and go. There was no return address on the envelope, but she had written that. Come to Doolin.

“That’s it, we’re turning back!”

Something in my chest sank. I thought of my luggage, lying unpacked on my bed in my flat. I hadn’t brought anything but myself and what I was wearing. All of my money had gone to the cowardly captain. I slipped out of his sight. If he saw what I intended to do, he would try stop and fish me out. I dropped into the water and swam for the island.

Two weeks and a letter. Did it really take so little to change me into this kind of person?

(Keats)

I sat at my desk, fingers dug into my scalp like spiderlegs caught in long grass. My dad had told me it wasn’t healthy to hang work up on the wall. But he had been a war correspondent. I wrote for an occult magazine.

More than half of the articles I had to write myself, under different names. No one stayed at the magazine for long. They were either devotees that flaked out in the face of having a job, or cynics who couldn’t bring themselves to write to believing readers. It didn’t matter if I believed or not. Half the time, I thought I didn’t, but the familiar rush that came with tips betrayed me.

Tips, I had in abundance. What I didn’t have was money. There was an island I’d received multiple tips about, but it was not a short trip, and I couldn’t bring myself to write about it without seeing it for myself. After all, an island where the living could meet with the dead warranted a visit, surely.

I mulled over that morning’s mails, tapping the edge of an envelope on my desk. A cheque for £500, in an envelope mailed from Doolin. It was enough money to pay the bills, maybe put some away and save up for a date. I hadn’t had a date in ages.

Dad had been right about the walls. I grabbed my coat and ran out the door, cheque in hand.

//

In retrospect (and isn’t it all retrospect) I think one of the problems was going with first person. It always makes me think of teenage girls.

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Is This What You Meant? Folklore

I had a lot of fun last time, so I thought that while I’m in a bit of a funk, another one of these would be a good idea. Although I’ve already talked about Folklore in a previous, quite recent post, I’ll give it a little of an introduction here to stay in keeping with the ITWYM? spirit.

Folklore is actually the PS3 game that I had added in my queue and had hoped would come before Resonance of Fate. I had wanted to try Folklore first because we’d just gotten our PS3, so I was in the mood to play it, and I didn’t want to get sick of Uncharted or Little Big Planet too fast. It also looked like my kind of thing–a pretty fantasy world. I write my own, and I like other people’s.

It did ultimately disappoint, far, far more than Resonance of Fate. At least I liked playing RoF. While most of the fault lies with the gameplay, the story did nothing to make me put up with the cheesy, empty gameplay.

The last time I summed it up, I was in a hurry, and had a post dragging on for too long. I should do it a little more justice here, to preface my own rewriting of the concepts.

Two stories, supposedly running concurrently, and neither is original or even told in an interesting way. A girl looking for her mother is quite basic, but it’s cluttered with what I call dead-horse hooks. The same goes for Keats following curiosity and a flimsy murder. The problem with this game, as opposed to RoF’s nonsensical cold open rife with too much information, is that the story is introduced with exhaustive detail and stretched too thin.

So let’s try to introduce a few specific things to the story-telling: more original characters, better characterisation, and replacing clichés with fresh ideas. If it doesn’t run too long, then maybe I can even expand the tiny world to a more immersive size.

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