Monday, December 14, 2009

Favorite Games, Part Two

And now the thrilling conclusion of my favorite games. There are five more, making for a nice, well-rounded eight.

The Russell Crowe Award for Gladiatorial Combat
Tactical RPG

Actually, the reason I award Gladius is not because it is a gladiator game, but rather because it is a competent and engaging tactical RPG. There are a great many good RPGs, a few good turn-based strategy games, but almost no good games that combine the two. And yet this is a natural combination, because a good way to make RPG combat deeper and more strategic is to make it turn-based, like a game of chess. That, of course, means the AI has to be better, which usually means that the graphics will be worse, and that fewer people will buy it, and so on.

The result is that, because the masses like their high-paced, gory first-person shooters (FPS) and real-time strategies (RTS), other genres get often overlooked. More than anything, the RPG model gets folded in the the RTS model (Warcraft 3) or the FPS model (Deus Ex or Bioshock; even Fallout 3 falls into this category). Gladius did not have an exceptional AI, and the story was fairly bland but the gameplay was wonderful. The depth of strategy available to the player and the variety of unit-types found throughout the massive game world was truly staggering for a large-scale, commercial game published by Lucas Arts.

Surprisingly, Gladius was released on console only, even though it is, in almost every way, a game meant for the computer. Though usually multiplayer doesn't interest me, Gladius was meant for it. The AI had no hope of outsmarting the player in so complex a game, so another human would have made the best opponent. Unfortunately, the game's only multiplayer mode was a toned down, single-battle involving, by necessity, only combatants from your saved games in the campaign. On the plus side, the campaign could be played cooperatively (and, as my brother could tell you, was). All in all, a fine gaming experience, but its lack of commercial success - despite uniformly excellent reviews - has prevented a sequel, and the genre remains underrepresented.

The Defenestration of Prague Award for Historicity
Europa Universalis
Real Time Strategy / Simulation
It's hard to really call EU a "real time strategy." The game is certainly not turn-based, but the passage of time can be paused at any moment so that your nation can be assessed, orders can be issued, diplomacy attempted, and trade expanded. The game is more simulation, because none of those things involve the RTS formula: secure resources, build mass of units, destroy enemy base. But I say EU is an RTS nevertheless because in some sense it is far more "real time" than any other game. Rather than processing in arbitrary weeks or months or years (or turns), EU progresses through history - from whatever starting point you choose within its range - day-by-day. When your English forces discover the new world it is not on turn 100, or even in 1492. No, it happens on the 27th of May, 1492.

Doesn't that mean the game takes a long time? Well, you can speed it up to a fairly brisk clip, but yes. Processing hundreds of years of history means processing hundreds of thousands of days. And the length of the game is only the beginning. As I've mentioned in previous posts, EU includes just about every nation existent at any time between 1450 and 1850. The Holy Roman Empire - which famously was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire - is indeed split into its dozens and dozens of member states. Russia begins split between barren wastes, Muscowy, and Novgorod. Japan - if you have the Magna Mundi Mod (which everyone does) - actually goes through its protracted Civil War during the 15th and 16th centuries, meaning it is split into a sizable collection of provinces.

And you, the player, can experience any part of that world at any time period you choose, and that is the beauty of the game. You can, for example, play:
- America at the time of the War for Independence.
- The Mayans or the Aztecs right as they make contact with Europe.
- China, as it strives for dominance in Asia.
- Sweden at the onset of the 30 years war.
- Castille as it fights the Reconquista against the Moors.
and so on.
Europa Universalis - especially EU 3 - is a sandbox. History does not unfold as it did. But that is part of the fun. If you, as the English, crush the American Revolution, what are the implications for the rest of the world? Moving further back, what if Portugal colonizes the Eastern Seaboard instead? Further still, what if England fails to unify the British Isles, and instead Scotland becomes the major British power?

I name my award after the defenestration of Prague because, while the broader historical progress is the heart of the game, the kinds of events that pop up from time to time are such that you might actually see a defenestration. For a game with such breadth, EU sacrifices little in depth (it sacrifices primarily in graphics, but too much glitz would be distracting in this kind of game anyway), which is why it is the gold standard of historical simulation, and the single largest reason that Paradox Interactive is able to survive in the world of Electronic Arts, Microsoft, and other major developers.

I've reserved the final three games here for last because, while this is by no means a list that goes in order, I believe these are the best of the best. It's splitting hairs, especially because - as you may have noticed - there is a substantial amount of variety in the genres and principles of gameplay of the games I have listed so far (a trend that will continue in these three). Nevertheless, the following occupy that special place of "game I would happily play through again, even though I've played through at least once before."*
* Open-ended games like Civilization IV and Europa Universalis don't really fall into the "would play through again" equation, of course. What separates them, I think, from this group - albeit by a hair - is that they are more obviously superficial. It is hard to believe that you are truly the all-powerful, all-seeing monarch of a country that lives for hundreds (or thousands) of years. While I prefer strategy games in many ways - because they make you think - they are abstractions in a way that RPGs are not.

The Monteverdi Award for Pioneering an Art Form*
Shadow of the Colossus

*Monteverdi is widely considered the father of the opera.

Shadow of the Colossus
is a rare, beautiful gem of a game. More than any other game I have every played, it is a work of art first, and a game second, and the first game in this list for which I have felt compelled to include a screenshot. The story is touching and mysterious, as the main character is compelled to battle, one-by-one, a series of giant Colossi in order to save his beloved from death. More than that I won't say, because the game leaves it all unclear.

Which is why the game works so well. You are not merely pitted against these dozen colossi - each clever and innovative in their own way, each requiring a unique strategy to defeat, and each stunning in their artistic merit - you also have to navigate through a rich and detailed world, seeking these Colossi. It is also a barren world, filled with ruins, none of which are explained. What civilization exists or existed? How did you get to this wild, unpopulated place? Who is this entity that can save your beloved, but only if you defeat the Colossi? Where did these Colossi come from?

Ultimately, the brilliance of the game is in leaving all of that unanswered. The player, rather than being given an explanation, is presented only the phenomenon of a beautiful and terrifying landscape populated by nothing but ancient and powerful machines. The answers to most of your questions, as a player, will not be given, and so you must explore the possibilities for yourself. What answers you do get come in the form of one of the most touching and powerful ending sequences in any game I have ever played. Which is hardly surprising, given the artistry of the game as a whole. What little speaking occurs in the game is subtitled - as it was not originally in English - but that only adds to the mystique, and feels somehow "correct."

The Jedi Award
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

This game was and remains one of the finest RPGs ever made. Usually games made under the umbrella of a long-standing and commercially successful franchise are awful. The publisher recognizes that a good game is unnecessary because, ultimately, the name sells itself. There are quite a few Lord of the Rings games out there that, frankly, suck, but were commercially successful because they bore the words "Lord of the Rings" on the box.

Much credit should go to Lucas Arts for bringing in Bioware to make Knights. Rather than relying on the name and the chance to wield a lightsabre, Lucas Arts brought in the best of the best to make an RPG for the ages. Far from leaching off of the Star Wars name, Knights actually contributed to the name, in many ways saving it from the awful new movies.

What made Knights such a good game? Undoubtedly much of it was the chance to become a Jedi - a role-playing experience even the least nerdy of the nerds could not miss. Beyond that, however, there was the in-depth morality system, which made Knights one of the first games to include multiple endings based on whether you followed the light side or the dark side.

The most endearing aspect of the game, however, was the story. Knights of the Old Republic boasts a better story (and better "acting," though only voice acting) than any of the Star Wars movies. The characters are all, to a person (or droid) memorable, and there is a plot twist so surprising, handled so well, that it is still regarded as one of the greatest moments in video games. I won't give it away, but it's way cooler than "Luke, I am your father."

There was also a sequel to Knights, which was a fine game as well, but Bioware backed out and so the game was made by Obsidian instead. Ultimately, the sequel couldn't match the original, and while it expanded and complicated the morality system and included influence within your cadre of companions, it lacked the punch of the original. Bioware, in the meantime, went to work on their next two projects. One was called Jade Empire, an excellent game in itself, though hamstrung by its commitment to the console over the computer. The other is the final game in my list, and the real spiritual successor to Knights.

The Dirk Gently Award for the Whole Package*
Mass Effect

* Of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. Douglas Adams at, I would argue, his finest.

What can I say about Mass Effect? It was, at the time, Bioware's most ambitious and most successful work. It remains - in the opinion of this humble gamer, who is now mired in their current effort, Dragon Age Origins - their finest work as well. Mass Effect was brilliant for many reasons, first and foremost being the feeling that you were in a movie. I'll talk about a few key features.

The entire game was voice acted - indeed, it set a new standard for voice acting - including the main character. Rather than moving mutely through a talkative world, Commander Shepard (you) are just as vocal as everyone else. Bioware provides, for each piece of conversation, a short snippet capturing the essence of what you're going to say, but when your character speaks, he (or she) speaks in full sentences and paragraphs. Dialogue is more highly scripted than in many games, in order to make this feasible, but the result is worth it, because your character is that much more believable.

The gameplay itself is excellent as well. Though essentially a first person shooter at battle time, much of what happens is dictated by the conversations that you have and the missions you choose to take on. In battles, as well, you can manage and direct your teammates, giving the game a strong tactical feel, even if it is in real time. Battles almost always take place in areas with plenty of cover for both yourself and your foes, so some firefights can last many minutes. Moreover, regardless of your class - there are three to choose from - you will have an array of abilities and powers at your disposal to help you overcome the mass of enemies that the will be thrown against you. Mixing and matching these abilities with those of your teammates requires some serious forethought.

Of course, the real "movie" feel to the game comes from the story. It is not especially creative in itself, following the "save the galaxy" standard, but the world that it takes place in is unique. What I mean is, while Humans exist in the Mass Effect galaxy, a great many species that are not Humans do as well, and those are not taken from the standard Star Trek, Star Wars, or Master of Orion options. As you explore the game world, you'll come across various races and technologies that each have their own, voiced entry in your journal. These "codex" serve to immerse the player in the game world.

Even though the story is fairly standard, the way it is accomplished is not. Many quests require decisions that do not necessarily end well. It is not only possible, but likely that you will finish the game down a squad member or two (or more). Rumor has it than in the upcoming sequel - to be released next year - it will be possible to finish the game down the main character. If that's not bold and different, I don't know what is.

I am picky about my games. While I have played many, there are actually few that I play all the way through. Often the game becomes too obvious, too easy, or too artificial long before the final battle. Indeed, those final battles are often anticlimactic (Mass Effect's, sadly, is). But some games warrant more than one play through, not just to explore alternate endings - if they exist - or a variety of character types. No, some games are just that good. Mass Effect I have played twice, and the second time I actually did more side quests than the first. There are not many games I can say that about (Knights of the Old Republic and Gladius are the only others, off the top of my head).

Why share all this? Well, for those of you who are gamers, I know that you may not have stumbled across some of these games before. For those who aren't, I want to point out - as I stated in the first post - that games are improving and becoming culturally significant works of art. Bioware is at the forefront of that effort, but so are lesser known companies like Stardock, a developer with an excellent business model that is refreshingly customer-oriented. Check out their upcoming Elemental: War of Magic to see a game that is poised for excellence in strategic depth, artistic merit, and open-ended gameplay. I would be remiss if I didn't point out that a great many of the best ideas for games come from independent developers. Of my own list, Out of the Park Baseball is developed not by some huge corporation, but by an individual programmer in his spare time (in Germany, at that). Europa Universalis, too, is the product of a smaller company, though at this point they could hardly be called an "indie" developer. I didn't speak to Mount and Blade, but very well could have. It was developed by a husband and wife team, and includes the most realistic combat engine you're like to find anywhere.

The point being, there is a lot of money being poured into the gaming world these days, but there's also a lot of artistic fervor and passion. From a gamers point of view, this is an exciting time, when each year brings innovations that put to shame the games of the past (even if you sometimes have to search hard for the truly innovative games). From an educators point of view, this is a time when the possibilities of leveraging games for learning and teaching are finally becoming clear and feasible. From a writer's point of view, this is a time when games are finally catching up to movies and novels in terms of the content they offer.*

*The story goes that, when developers wrote their games in the 80s and 90s, they would ask who on the development team had taken a creative writing course at some point in their education. That person would then write the plot and dialogue and so on. These days, companies higher screenwriters and novelists and so on to write their games. The difference is apparent.

Are games a waste of time? That's the biggest question I haven't addressed, I think. Movies take a couple hours, most games take at least a dozen, and many take substantially more. I would argue, though, that games exercise the mind - imagination, problem solving, and so on - far more than movies do, and certainly more than most TV does. Games are interactive, strategic, difficult enough to be a challenge, but not so difficult as to make you miserable (well, some are). They are a whole new art form, and while games, like any artistic medium, are split between the blatantly commercial and the purely artistic (with most occupying somewhere in between), it would be foolish to condemn the whole genre because what is most well publicized and well known is also crappy (most of the EA Sports games, for example). If that were fair, we'd have to condemn all movies for titles like Transformers and Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay is, after all, the Electronic Arts of movies).

In short, games are far from a waste of time. Don't believe me? Try one out, but try a good one. The sticky thing, for me, isn't whether games are a waste of time, but whether I have time to play them. I certainly find them less important than classwork or a job, but I also find Sophocles, Plato, Shakespeare, and Beethoven "less important" than those things. Indeed, the preponderance of games in the modern world gives me hope that we may yet overcome this grave societal addiction to work (and by extension, money) that has corrupted our spirits and poisoned our environment for far too long. The play of a culture - its type, intensity, and passion - might be much more indicative of health than productivity. But that, my friends, is a post for another time.

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