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Old News – Fallen London

I remember the good old days when I had nothing to do but be in on the ground-breaking days of pointless internet games. One such was Fallen London, a browser-based game that I first played when you could only join through a Twitter account. I stopped playing for a few reasons. One, it got overwhelming–the game had a lot of “qualities” and stats to keep track of, like quests and connections to various factions. It was also really annoying trying to get any decent amount of game currency without teetering off the free-to-play region.

Those problems are still there, but I don’t care as much since I can only “play” once or twice a day. And yes, the word play does deserve air quotes in regards to Fallen London. And really any game that uses the Story Nexus system.

That’s not a bad thing. It’s like interactive fiction, with lots and lots of reading, as “gameplay” is basically reading things called storylets and then taking action based on how you want to play your character and what your strengths are. I’d like to have some kind of way to train skills without wasting a lot of time–in Fallen London you only get ten actions at a time, and a single action takes ten minutes to refresh. But oh well.

The best thing about Fallen London really, is its theming. The language and graphics evoke a very fun world, and although it can get obnoxious when you fail constantly, because you can only build up one or maybe two skills effectively in a short period of time, you really feel like you’re developing a distinct character as you play. Of course, you have to look at the skills and decide where to specialise before this can really happen. If you just try a little bit of everything at once, you’ll probably just get frustrated.

If you like the idea but don’t enjoy the game, there are others. My return to Fallen London also meant the discovery of the Story Nexus. Rather than just make their game available to those without Twitter or Facebook, they developed a sort of… well, it might not be an engine, but that’s what I’ll call it. A kind of game/story engine. Anyone with a Story Nexus account–whether you play Fallen London, Maelstrom, or The Annwn Simulation 1985–can make their own game world.

I haven’t played with that much, but I did tell Hubby about it, and if he takes a look at it, he’ll probably find out all its secrets. :)

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Being productive in the meantime

So, after all of the fuss that was made… Heh, seriously, when I say, “all the fuss,” I am not exaggerating. My OB ordered three tests, one of which sent me up the hill to the university hospital. There, a nurse, a phlebotomist, and two midwives hovered over me, literally for hours.

They monitored Owen’s heartbeat and movement, which were both great (he must just be most active after 17:00), but with my BP being INSANE they drew a bunch of blood and nearly sent me home (twice!) with a duplicate of test equipment I’d already gotten from the other lab. I also got a shot of some sort of steroid that will help Owen’s lungs develop faster in case we have to induce. First shot of two.

Then we go in to get the second shot and turn in the twenty-four hour test last night, and we get one nurse who takes her bloody time and nearly forgets to pick up the twenty-four hour test after giving me the shot.

Mixed messages, much?

I honestly packed a quickie version of my hospital bag in case the test results came back saying PRE-ECLAMPSIA and staff kermit-flailed until I got into a hospital bed. It’s not like I want to have this scary thing happen–we are not even stuff-equipped for Owen to be premature, haven’t even got the right size nappies–I just want some consistency. Don’t scare me if it’s not necessary!

um. Anyway.

I worked on Desiderata for a good hour today, finished up a sidequest that’s mostly just dialogue fun. I still have missing maps, which includes the arena. The arena should be a good chunk of thingy, too, but I think it can wait, since I’ve got to place a lot more sidequests, let alone write and event them. There are five of them, one of which is a multi-tiered endeavour, and another which may require me to add or complete a few NPCs in one area of the city.

There are also at least six major plot-related quests that need writing, and since they are basically three independent pairs, that’s a lot of work. It’s that wizard-choosing thing. This is where the game branches on a major level–the first level of wizard quests can all be done, but the second level marks the choice.

One of the wizards has an extra but optional step that can, in combination with a previous happening, knock down his price from 200 to as low as 120 (180 if you don’t have the other thing done, and it’s not something you get a second chance at). I have to write that, and it’ll probably be the reason that I go through his plot quest first.

Also reading another Poirot mystery. Strangely, I don’t think he shows up until at least ten chapters in. Which is weird. It’s an experience, reading them with what was a stronger familiarity with Sherlock Holmes. They have very different chronology and status quos.

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Linear Progression and Nesting Conditional Branches

As I’m sure I’ve said (read: whined about a lot), I have been putting off my current work in Desiderata for a long time. Ninety per cent of that has certainly been due to pregnesia and malaise (pregmalaisia?) but there’s also the quest itself.

I do like writing Arthur, but he existed in the limbo of concept and future planning for such a long time that I built myself some very unreal expectations. He ought to be likeable, although he is entirely optional if the player doesn’t like him. But his likeability is based on charm and humour. Both of which, especially the latter, have incredibly high standards. To do less than meet them is to fail.

But what I mean to really go on about is the eventing/coding involved.

If people want a novel, they acquire a novel. Linearity is a given in a novel, and it works in a manner similar to film and even television, to some extent. (when you bring the concept of series into it, there are some that can be seen out of order, and some that suffer for it) However, video games are not like any of these things.

Even in an RPG that has a central plot line that is told in a linear fashion, the player has options to do things out of order. The degree of freedom varies.

  • Quest for Glory – Acts a bit like a checklist. Most goals are open to the player immediately, some must be unlocked, and others are time-sensitive or time-specific. But there is not necessarily a mandatory order in which you must complete them. Some are even optional. This is the case for most point-and-click adventure games.
  • Jade Empire – Locks the player into one location or location set. There may be a lot of sidequests within that location, and you don’t even have to bother with most of them, but you only have access to them while you are in that location. Once you have progressed the rigidly linear plot to the next point, you move to the next location and can’t go backwards. This is a decent amount of freedom, but more rigidly structured.
  • Final Fantasy 13 – The hallway. Absolutely no feature of the game is accessible to the player unless the game permits it. From the story progression to options in the menu, everything is dictated by fixed advancement.

Seems I managed a bit of a scale, there. As far as we’ve plotted and carried things out in Desiderata, we have a sort of Jade Empire model for player freedom. Funny to say that though, since this location marks the point where the player can actually begin to backtrack travel, and although the story remains rather linear, you have a game-changing decision to make.

Quests can also vary in freedom and linearity. For example, in the quest that allows you to hire the lady wizard Fienna upon completion, the steps are linear. You accept the quest, retrieve an item, fight a monster, chase a frog, and return to Fienna. There’s more to it in the quest completion sequence, but that’s something else.

For Arthur, you have to talk to a few different merchants to obtain spell components. You can speak to them in any order–and one of them will offer you something you don’t want.

For the player, this should be a given. For me, eventing it, I had to make a way that the characters would inform the player that the task was completed without forcing them to speak to the merchants in a particular order.

The way I did this was to nest conditional branches. A conditional branch checks the information present in the game, and acts accordingly. For example, let’s say you want an NPC to say something to the players, but what he says is different based on whether they chose the sword or the bow at some previous juncture.

There are different ways to do that. Simplest would be if they had to choose one or the other and could not have chosen neither, merely make a conditional branch checking for one of the items (doesn’t matter which) and set conditions for if it is not present. That will get you this:

If SWORD is in inventory:
NPC says, “I see you are a warrior!”

Else:
NPC says, “You must be a fine shot.”

The else branch would be called into play if the sword was not chosen, and you as the writer know that if it was not chosen, the bow will have to be  in the inventory instead.

This is one of the easiest uses of conditional branches. But my problem with the merchants was a more complicated one. There are more items involved.

Luckily, each of the merchants provides one of the three items in question. So I make a nested conditional branch to check for the other two, so that the game can check if they have all been gathered. This means that after I make the first check, the first action made is to make another check. Thusly:

If CANDLE is in inventory:
If MUSHROOM is in inventory:
PC says, “We’re done with this quest!”

This basically means that the game checks for the candle, and then checks for the mushroom. If the candle isn’t there, it doesn’t bother looking for the mushroom and life goes on.

The thing to keep in mind with these nested conditional branches is that they are performed in order. So if you’re doing something more complicated, which I have, you might have to have multiple nests. This is mostly necessary for times when you have to have different combinations of checks, e.g., the first step is the most important and subject to complex change.

Now that I’ve babble on and on about this, I’m still not sure I’ve managed to explain it properly. But I hope it’s a little clearer to people who have never used conditional branches (and actually know something about RPG Maker).

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Back to game-writing

And the first thing I run into is a topic that I have brought up before–that of the repetitive nature of much of writing video games. As before, I have been stuck on finishing the myriad ways of accepting and rejecting a quest from the wizard Arthur. As he is a possible love interest, there are quite a few ways to run through his dialogue.

He is fun to write, but I ended up just copying and re-using his actual missive about the items that the player is asked to fetch for him. It’s just a list of items, and I really didn’t want to come up with several ways for the ponce to ask you to get him fox bonemeal, a new candle, and a smelly mushroom.

My favourite thing about Arthur, though, is that Callo takes an immediate dislike to him.

scr1

scr2

The quests for the other two wizards have been done for some time now. This one is all set up now, but the hard part has come up at last. I have to figure out how to make a failing condition for Arthur’s quest. He insists that none of the items can be replaced by cheaper substitutes.

We have a few ideas of how to make this more interesting than BioWare would (yes, I am looking at you, bearded tongue grass), but I think I’m still a bit stuck on the mechanics. More on that tomorrow, probably. Hopefully I’m through with being stuck. Though that is still dependant on how sick I get. Less than sixty days until my due date.

EDIT: Curse my own imperfection. I just noticed the typo in the second screenshot. (it went from “there’re” to “there are” so that’s how that happened) I’ll leave it. I’m not afraid of people knowing I’m a little dumb. It is fixed in-game, though.

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Rebels and Terrorists

Spoony’s recent return to his Final Fantasy 13 review made me want to take another look at the game. As I recall, I had gotten about nine hours in before I just gave up with my hands in the air. When I went back to play again, I nearly did the same before I had control. Which, of course, is a rare treat in this game. If it were a paper, its central thesis would be that the player should have as little involvement as possible.

There are only three characters to a party, and you only get to control one of those in fights–and thanks to the stupid scoring system that is based solely on time taken, and the fact that you begin the game with about two options, there’s no reason not to use Auto-Battle. Which is letting the game play for you. The only other control you have is walking around–in a linear corridor. The entire world is literally a straight line.

The rest of the game is cutscenes, be they pre-rendered or in-game graphics. In short, this is not a game, it’s a movie. Not even a good movie.

A good movie would have a story that makes some kind of sense. Heavy Rain has gotten a lot of flak for being overly cinematic and not having much replay value, but at least the story was halfway decent to basically good. Every few seconds in FF13, I find myself grimacing and asking why that just happened.

Not only is the dialogue so disjointed that I am convinced that every character believes he or she is in a separate game, but there is a lot of unintentional lying. This, I think, is due to the writers being completely out of touch with the universe at large.

Take my point in the post title. Bad writers, especially bad JRPG writers, adore rebellions. Unfortunately, they haven’t got a clue how to present them. Instead, we have a lot of stories where the terrorists are portrayed (badly) as the good guys. This is hilarious in its unintended failure. …less so after one sees it happen fifty million times.

In FF13, there is absolutely nothing new in this predictable situation. The resistance is made up of an unrealistically small amount of people (five named characters), all of them under the age of twenty-two, they have no clear goals, and they do a lot of damage without ever actually helping people. They also have very weak reasons (if any) to dislike, let alone rebel against the reigning government.

And in this case, the government comes across as more sympathetic than the “heroes” pretty much ten times out of ten.

The so-called bad guys are consistently shown on the defensive. They always react to the heroes’ acts of assertive aggression. The first major event the player (read: audience) sees is a forced exile of a large number of people. What the player sees is a main character (called Lightning) attack the soldiers guarding the prisoners, and then continue to attack forces that respond to the obvious threat she poses.

This escalates into an outright rebellion from the exiles, exacerbated by the terrorists (rebels?), resulting in the deaths of exiles and soldiers alike, as well as a jaw-dropping amount of property damage.

In the middle of this, Lightning “exposits” that this was the government’s plan all along. The forced exile was a lie. They had always meant to slaughter the exiles.

what.

Rather than just transport people into banishment, which is pretty inexpensive and even easy, considering that all of the people involved understood the situation and had more or less resigned themselves to it until some moron convinced them not to cooperate.

But no. We are supposed to believe that the military actually planned to stop the train in the middle of this much simpler operation and sacrifice their troops and equipment in order to make a very public and objectionable display that would make the rest of the world hate and fear them along with the actual monsters they already fear.

Even if they had planned to kill these people instead of just transporting them, there are better ways of doing this. They had all of the people confined to a train. GAS THE BLEEDIN’ TRAIN. Something that a thinking human might actually do in this type of situation.

The only conclusion I can logically come to is that Lightning lied. It fits her personality as that blooms, like an ugly stinkflower. It also fits the events. There are absolutely no acts of aggression from the military until she provokes them. With a rocket launcher.

With this kind of crap to gripe about, you’d think I would be able to glaze over the idiotic Power Rangers poses, meaningless fist pumps, and constant effing giggling. But no. That’s all still annoying as hell. The day that a character in a JRPG moves like an actual human being,  Satan will start skating to work.

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To the Moon

To the Moon is a heavily story-driven RPG Maker XP game. Ostensibly, it is about two neural engineers who have been contracted to insert a desired memory into the mind of a man called Johnny. In Johnny’s case, this desired memory is a trip to the moon, although he is not able to explain why. How this works is never explained terribly well, but for some reason, the engineers must trek back through his memories in order to make the memory stick.

Depending on what mindset one is in upon reading this premise, one will either think immediately of space programmes or of a daydream trip that relies on breathing in space like Batman. After having played, I’m still not quite sure which I’m meant to have embraced. (although they do end up going to NASA)

Although there are arguably two sets of protagonists–the engineers and Johnny–the former never really have enough characterisation or personal development to have their own story. There were occasionally brief attempts, but they didn’t come to much.

Other reviews and summaries for the game I have read call the engineers, Dr Eva Rosalene and Dr Neil Watts, either scientists or doctors, but I never felt that either of those titles fit. There is a physician present (retained by Johnny), and Rosalene and Watts often behave much more like engineers or programmers, which I think was reflected in the nature of their profession as well.

Their relationship with one another is one of the less enjoyable aspects of the game, and serves as a good example of its major failing. It’s possible that the intent was belligerent sexual tension, but as Watts makes continuous unfunny jokes, Rosalene tells him to shut up, and they both insult the other, they merely come off as co-workers who dislike one another.

As for that major failing… perhaps my standards are simply too high, but I rarely, if ever, found any of the dialogue funny. There were many references to popular properties, including Dragon Ball and Doctor Who, and some of these “gags” went on overlong.

That aside, this game is lauded for its emotional impact. I was personally not impressed. I mentioned that I was similarly unaffected by Digital: A Love Story, but this didn’t seem like quite the same thing. Thanks in part to poor writing and abysmal dialogue, I found the game’s attempts to engage me emotionally all fell quite flat.

Johnny’s story is quite tragic, make no mistake. Without spoiling too much, his wife River has recently passed away, and suffered a condition that made her act strange. She was present throughout much, possibly all of his life. A strong force of familiarity.

I never liked River at all. Given the game’s aggressively coy refusal to name her condition, it was hard to see what of her cold behaviour was out of her control and what wasn’t. She never seemed to love Johnny or make his life any better–rather the opposite. A great deal of the narrative is spent talking about her condition and its affects on other people, which is why the fact that it is literally never named is so frustrating. There is really no reason not to just say she has Asperger’s or whatever.

However, it’s likely that the biggest problem is the ending. Normally, if a game’s ending is ruined by thinking too hard, that may well be the fault of the player. But that argument falls flat when the game in question purports itself as cerebral, as this one clearly does or at least should. Most of the game is reading, after all.

Again, trying not to give spoilers, the game has a relatively happy ending–until one realises that this has basically been a time travel story, yet fails to actually change the past, present, or future. It’s not a bad time travel story, especially in Act 3. But in the end, Johnny’s life did not change, he died as was expected, and the other characters walk away having learned something from him in a voyeuristic manner that made me feel a bit ill.

Still, it’s a good start to what appears to be a series. This first story is told better than I expect from RPG Maker games, is self-contained, and there are hints at a greater arc to be experienced by Drs Rosalene and Watts. The graphics are wonderful, the gameplay is well-balanced and largely stays out of the way of the story. It’s also just long enough to be satisfying without soaking up a lot of time. (I’d say about four hours)

You can pick up a copy of To The Moon along with the shorter (and IMO, better) game by the same creators, The Mirror Lied, from GOG.com or the game and soundtrack bundle from Steam.

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Screenshot and some thoughts on eventing

Just one screenshot and not a really deep thought, but no one expects much from me.

This is part of the scene that I worked on today, and it probably won’t be a terribly long one. Although it might actually end up a long one, now that I think about it. Depends on how much explanation is necessary for the questing part. As it is, all that really has to happen is that they explain they need a wizard, and just like the others, before they get to say why, the wizard with whom they are speaking tells them that he is busy.

newscreen

As they are accustomed to this sort of thing (and may well have dealt with either or both of the other wizards who said the same kind of thing), our tepid–er, intrepid heroes offer their aid. They need a non-busy wizard, after all.

This one wants an errand run, and it’s going to be pretty clear that the reason is just as much that he isn’t in the mood to go out as it is that he really is genuinely preoccupied.

The errand might end up a complicated mess of eventing, but the last time I had a simple concept that I knew would be an eventing mess, I managed it in a matter of days. So we shall see what happens with this one.