Category Archives: Gaming

Video game review dump

I’ve had a chance to play a few video games over the course of the Fall. I’m going to try to keep these concise:

Civilization VI review

I have a long history with the Civilization franchise. My first experience goes back to the first game back on the SNES. I was 9 or 10 at the time, so the game was a bit out of my depth. In fact, it was the first strategy game I played. I did not get into it as I didn’t understand the game as there was no tutorial and it was a game I rented from the local video store which lacked the instruction manual. Instead, my first real experiences with the series came with Civilization II on PC. By then, I was far more into strategy games due to such gems like Ogre Battle on SNES, Sim City (also on SNES) and a few others. I enjoyed the game tremendously; so much so my friends and I leaped at Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. To whit, it remains one of my favourite strategy games of all time.

The newest iteration of the game does clean up quite a few issues I’ve previously had with the franchise but introduced other ones. As a whole, I find the game one of the best outings of the series but I’ll focus on the things done wrong to encourage discussion on solutions. Note this review includes changes following the first patch.

Diplomacy system is still bad: It never ceases to amaze me how Civilization still continues to fail at diplomacy. The agenda system is a nice attempt in theory to fix issues and works well with some leaders. On the other hand, the hidden agenda often having a random seed can lead to conflicting agendas or making it impossible to be on good terms with a civilization. Frequently, the AI would offer me trade deals which were laughably one-sided in their favour. However, unlike in Beyond Earth, I did find myself making more trade pacts than in that game because eventually I could please the agendas of the rulers to where the deals were fair for both parties.

It is particularly glaring when comparing the early game to the rest. The AI is war happy until the classical age and then rarely launches any wars at all. The few times it does declare war, the other AI controlled civilizations will call me the warmonger even though I was the target of declarations of war.

The AI extremely rarely respects your wishes regarding spies and missionaries when they agree to do so. Furthermore, breaking such promises do not trigger casus belli conditions or warmonger type penalties for the AI the player or other AI can exploit. Your only recourse is denouncing the AI which often triggers other Civs to repudiate you in response for doing so even if you have just cause.

Removing the World Congress also reduces what can be accomplished via diplomacy, making it feel stripped down. To be fair, it is the only feature that has been removed from previous incarnations of the game. I’m hoping it does get included at some point; hopefully free but I won’t hold my breath on that.

AI is lacking: The AI really struggles with the new district system. Only 1-3 cities in any civ will have more than 2 districts even when playing with abundant resources. Often times I’ll see Civs like Russia or Greece (Pericles) hoard great artists, writers and musicians but no buildings to house great works. The AI will build cities extremely close to one another and not exploit ideal land utilization. This is particularly meddlesome to me who likes getting the most out of every city.

On the warfare front, I never feel challenged by the AI except on the higher difficulties and only in the early game where they’ll utilize their huge early advantage to send 3-4 warriors against my only city before I’ve even had a chance to build my first unit. If played smart, 3-4 units can turn away four times their number without issue.

Barbarians are a different beast. They are relentless thorns in your side even until the later periods if you so much as allow enough room for encampments to spawn. Further, the AI almost always has barbarians target your civ ahead of the AI if your units, districts or improvements are within range.

The UI is not optimal: To a veteran of the CIV franchise, it took me a while to figure out where to find some information. You find yourself having to often switch between the newly introduced lenses to find what you are looking for. Further, I often encounter issues where scrolling over a tile won’t reveal the yields. The game also doesn’t warn or prompt you when enemy units are in proximity of your cities. There are times I have units fortified in the area to act against these or enemy units within my cities bombard range but I fail to notice until several tiles have been pillaged or my units have been attacked when I could have reacted sooner if it worked like in Civ 5. Speaking of bombardment, it can be difficult to click on the icon to bombard an enemy unit if your city or encampment has a unit on that tile.

I still haven’t found how to raze cities ceded to me in a peace deal. This annoys me on a personal level more than most, granted.

Building up your cities is more difficult: The designers really wanted to emphasize small or specialized cities and it shows. Every subsequent construction of any building or even unit has an increasing cost. Thus, to “optimally” play the game, you want to avoid duplicates. Nevertheless, the costs still increase as you progress through each age as a sort of weird inflation. Wouldn’t things become cheaper if you’ve already built examples earlier?

The big change of districts and buildings being outside your city is the biggest change in game. I like the new strategy element it introduces as you try to optimize city and district placement to get the most out of your constructions. However, once you lay down a district you can’t remove or halt its construction to replace it elsewhere. You are stuck with that initial decision unless you load an old save. I also dislike that there is no method to hasten repair times of pillaged districts whether it be cash or though another method. You can build buildings through cash or even faith but repairs is a no-no.

Wonders need tweaking: Some wonders need to be re-balanced. The Great Library offers little benefit because by the time you finish building it, you are extremely likely out of the classical period and thus would gain no benefit from the boost of increased research for ancient or classical technologies.

Despite my criticisms, I give the game a solid 8/10. With tweaks, the game has the potential to be the best of the series and close to matching Alpha Centauri.

Hand of Fate

A fun little game by a small developer. I really liked the atmosphere and while I do find some of the random chance in the game to be highly frustrating, it is a fun game. The game reminds me of the Lord of the Rings Living Card Game, in a good way. Sometimes the cards screw you, other times you can breeze through. Good for 4-10 hours of play.

I give it a 7/10.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

I was really looking to like this game but as I progressed through the campaign, I quickly felt disappointed. The game appeared straight forward enough as a call back to classic RTS games. However, the game has far too many different units with special abilities you have to manage in battle. Perhaps it’s just me getting worse at video games now that I’m 34, but it makes the game feel more twitchy like an FPS than the RTS games of my youth.

My main complaint comes in the game interface. The setting of the world is in the title: a desert world. Thus, level variety is severely limited to desert landscapes with differing rocky outcroppings or ruined starships. It does help create a certain atmosphere. Think Dune crossed with Battlestar Galactica. However, most of your units are a colour similar to the sand which makes it difficult in a high paced situation to pick out the right units for the job. It makes sense within universe to camouflage against the sand but your enemies don’t seem to care (they are a bright red) and neither do their targeting systems. Additionally, the basic or visually representative UI is limited in how far you can zoom out. This makes it easy for the AI to try to ambush or flank you if you don’t frequently jump in and out of the “radar” UI. This UI resembles the stick figures models of the old Mechwarrior games. By the end of the game, I found myself exclusively in the radar UI which made for a very bland experience. The game has a lot of depth but it feels very much like playing a war game as a general at the Pentagon. If it required micromanaging every single unit.

I give it a 5/10.

Tyranny

Every gaming group goes through a phase of playing evil characters. It was interesting to see the take of playing a bad guy in a CRPG. I found the game to be fairly fun and interesting. Sadly, I found only one NPC really stood out and it was hard to feel any ownership of the world. Like Pillars of Eternity, the designers started a world from scratch. Instead of keeping to a simple story, they wanted to create a very complex world which leaves a lot of dialogue to be expository. At other times, the game simply gives hyperlinks within dialogue trees to explain what the hell the NPCs are referring to. I’d liken it to Wikipedia: the RPG.

What stood out for me in the game was we could craft our character’s backstory and importance in the world and these decisions play out over the course of the game. Unlike Dragon Age: Origins, the game doesn’t pay lip service to this decision and it offers a lot of potential replay value for completionists. I do feel the game is a bit short but I feel it is worthwhile compared to what else is out there.

An aspect of RPGs I don’t usually care for but did come to my attention in this game was loot progression. I was never really awed by the gear you could earn in game. Pillars of Eternity did a far better job on that front. Further, the skill system favours using the same weapon types over and over again. Thus, if you made a bad decision or split between close and long range fighting, it felt like a detriment. You wouldn’t want to change weapon type for a character as you would be wasting the progression they earned using a different weapon and would be “behind the ball” with new weapons. The way the game gets around this is by allowing you to upgrade weapons but I found myself only upgrading the characters with fixed gear and never on my own and I completed all but 1 side-quest.

I did like how I never felt I had more money than I knew what I could do with as I constantly was low on cash divided between upgrading characters’ gear, purchasing magical customization or going to skill trainers. This made your purchasing decisions matter. As the gear was lack luster in my view, I spent most of my character’s money on character improvements.

A solid effort and I’m intrigued with what they do with it if anything going forward. I’d rather see them stick to one world and flesh it out fully through multiple games like Bioware with Mass Effect and Dragon Age. 8/10.

 

Life is Strange review

I recently played Life is Strange as it was on sale. While I’m late to the review period, I didn’t read the professional reviews beyond the scores. It was generally well-received by the gaming press and I can certainly understand why. From here on out, I will be entering mild spoiler territory. You have been warned.

Spoilers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The game’s protagonist is Maxine “Max” Caufield. An eighteen year old photography student attending a pretentious art academy in Washington state. Max favours polaroid cameras and like many millenials, she enjoys “selfies”. A lot of the game play emphasizes taking photos of the environment. At some points in the game, this becomes important to the plot but also serves to scratch the achievement whoring itch.

The most immediate comparison to mind was the Telltale game series. Both are episodic adventure games with a heavy emphasis on binary choices. However, the ability to rewind time does give the players the opportunity to pick and choose based on the immediate outcome rather than in the moment (or without reloading). Your rewind power does remain limited to a single “scene” although later on, you find you have the ability to rewind yourself into previously taken pictures if Max was present in the shot. Like Telltale, the puzzles are few. This is no Sierra Interactive game. Instead, the focus is on the story choices rather than convoluted puzzles or insane game logic to progress. However, where I find Telltale relies on contrived or “in the heat of the moment” decisions to create fabricated conflict and choices, Life is Strange doesn’t feel that way. One example will have you decide whether or not to intervene in a confrontation between Chloe and her stepdad. The consequences appear minor when compared to The Walking Dead however there is far more weight because you don’t feel like the game and story is forcing a conflict for conflict’s sake.

During a bathroom break between classes, Max happens on a confrontation between a punk rocker chick and a preppy school boy which results in the death of the former. Horrified by the events, she wishes it never happened and comes to the discovery she has somehow been given the power to rewind time and prevent the murder. This causes a chain of events where you follow the would be victim Chloe, a former best friend to Max, and try to solve the disappearance of a missing girl she befriended while Max and her family lived in Seattle for five years. To add gravity to the proceedings, a recurrent nightmare serves as a harbinger of doom on the sleepy town where Max grew up and currently attends school.

I found it refreshing to have a primarily female cast compared to most games I’ve played. Max and Chloe aren’t treated as sexual objects except by the villains and only at the climax of the game. The story does rely heavily on implied rape and sexual abuse to give it a darker tone. One would be victim narrowly escaped and contemplates suicide but was too drugged to remember details. Despite the subject matter and figuring out the true mastermind ahead of time, I felt the mystery, story and characters engaging enough to pursue. Although, there are at times a “mean girls” vibe from some of the secondary cast which I was largely disinterested in.

The story does fail a few times in the early going. For example, a large dilemma for Maxine involves outing the aforementioned preppy boy to the school principal . The principal is reluctant to act even in the face of significant evidence because of the preppy boy’s father has significant influence in the town. What bothers me is Maxine chooses not to go to the authorities with additional circumstantial evidence when the preppy boy and his father text her threats or when the boy breaks into her dorm room and writes “DIE BITCH” on her wall.

The game teases the exploration of alternate timelines in its narrative but doesn’t fully explore it beyond one timeline where Max must make a heart wrenching decision on Chloe’s fate; foreshadowing the ending. The episodic nature of the game limits this exploration and perhaps in hindsight it might have detracted from the main story. I’d like to see a future game deal with this more in depth. The writers of the game have proven deft in such a somber topic I feel relatively confident they can handle such a story adequately.

Another point in the game which I found irksome was the final sequences before the ending. In one of the few “puzzles” the options to resolve it are not all immediately available to you. Instead, you have to go through trial and error, then rewind before additional options become available. This is a clever trick, but gets tiresome quickly. Finally, I won’t spoil the ending. I chose the least darkest path but the final cutscene involved characters which I felt should not have been included. I went ahead and watched the alternate ending which reinforced my decision.

All in all, I’d give the game a 9/10 in story, and 6/10 in gameplay. Very simplistic gaming elements except for two stealth sequences but it services the plot.

 

 

Building Characters #3: Goals

One of the challenges I face writing my murder mystery (besides my old computer hard drive crashing with it) was trying to give the characters varied motives to murder the victim or motives and goals outside of the deed itself. One of the RPG campaigns I am involved with more or less died over the holidays as one player decided to tear up his character sheet. He lost interest as the game master is very poor at planning his schedule and so we had long periods between sessions. The rest of the group had a discussion on the topic of the future of the campaign. This in turn spun into a discussion on what we were looking for in the game from both a player and character perspective.

One thing that struck me was one of the players, who I had been playing with for almost 20 years, expressed criticism for how we create our groups of characters. Often times, when someone starts a campaign the game master (GM) gives a brief context of the setting and everyone creates their character on their own. However, without giving the details of the story or plot the game master would follow, the player ends up with very bland characters or those who are not involved actively in the game. Rather, he spends most of his time flipping through rulebooks and thinking about creating a new character. This certainly explains how in the past, he often would go through dozens of characters in some campaigns. We interpreted this as indecisiveness or fickleness. Instead, his comment was he felt his character didn’t “fit in”. Rather, he wanted to create a new character who would fit into the narrative. Now, the fault can be spread to the GM and other players not integrating him more, but in the end he also has to be pro-active. In this case, he is purely a passive observer.

The other player, who I referred to in the previous post, was purely a tourist. I use the term tourist as the character’s only goal was to meet new people and see new things. Now, there is something to be said about wanderlust or the desire for adventure. This character was just touring the setting and had no intention of creating ties to the area beyond acquaintances and being an attention whore at social gatherings. He further explained what he looks for in a RPG experience is for the world, story, characters to influence his character. Essentially, his character is more or less a blank slate with some basic characteristics: usually a slutty hedonist, with a bit of an innocent streak. However, the player is quite perceptive and pragmatic. He projects these traits onto the character which makes the innocence come off as fake.

Now, both of these approaches are fine. However, these put the responsibility on others to pull them in and get them to invested. These are somewhat passive approaches which works fine for say a story on rails. However, the sand box nature of the campaign itself left them hanging in the wind, waiting for something to happen while I was going about exploring what could be done. The fourth player who tore up his sheet was more or less involved but he had a shared goal with me.

Step 1: Identifying the game

Now, my character creation process is dependent on what type of game we are playing and who is running the game. I adapt to the circumstances ahead of time. I’ll probe and ask questions to better suit the narrative and gameplay. The more complex the game setting or plot, the more likely I try to make a more complex character. Or if it is a game I dislike but play for the benefit of the group, I’ll play something I find interesting for myself. RPGs, unlike many other types of games, possess a more social aspect. Everyone contributes in one way or another be it through the social interaction, the gaming, or just bringing snacks to the table. So the first step is asking:

  • What type of campaign or story will it be?
  • Is this something I want to explore or take part in?
  • How can I (including the character-proxy) contribute or advance the story?

The answers will be different in each case but also mean different things to different individuals. A hack and slash dungeon crawl might mean a tactical challenge to someone while to another it is an opportunity to show off their mastery of game mechanics through power-gaming. Both are perfectly valid styles. These interpretations should then inform the players what role they will play and what type of character could best represent it with their view of the game.

In the example above, the player viewing it as a tactical challenge would likely make a tactical and intelligent character. One who relies on his or her wits to overcome challenges. What factored into this characters’ development to be this way? How will it inform her future actions? What drives her to do so?

Step 2: Group Cohesion

A major pitfall is conflicting interests within a group. This creates conflict between the players and is likely to bog down or slow the game down. In more extreme cases, this can hurt personal relationships between the players. Now, conflicting interests and competing interests are not the same thing. The former are in direct opposition while the others can be compromised upon. The former has to be handled very deftly by the players and the game master.

I find many groups go through different phases of maturity in gaming. The first, often formed through more “simplistic” games like D&D involves a very basic principle. You are a team and need to work together to accomplish the goals as given to you. The GM can steer the group as a whole without too much concern for motivating every single member.

Next comes the backstabbing phase. Often times this expresses itself with players wanting to play an “evil group” or playing more political games like Vampire: the Masquerade. The players want to break out of the initial good vs evil trope of medieval fantasy inspired by Lord of the Rings. This is when several players will begin creating their own goals, even if it is to fuck over their comrades over perceived slights. The challenge is to channel these interests towards the same objective without breaking the group. In my experience, the “evil group” games tend to have a very short shelf-life. The Vampire the Masquerade games tend to have more staying power but often devolve into solo scenes held in secret rather than involve everyone.

Now, our current group failed at the final phase of gaming maturity. This phase has players and their surrogate characters develop goals and work in tandem instead of at cross-purposes. We had little group cohesion not because of character conflicts but we had little to do with one another. In the end, there has to be a unifying quality to the goal(s), even if it is something very personal. You need the help of others to accomplish it as you cannot do it alone suffices. This must be established both in game and out of character to work. I and another player explicitly stated and established what dynamic, goals and roles we would play. The other two players ignored us to varying degrees. The first didn’t take into account the other characters whatsoever, the second played what he wanted and gave only a bit of effort to try to establish a working relationship. Thus, our group never meshed.

Step 3: Goals

Now that we’ve settled the framework, we need to establish what we would like to accomplish within. Simplistic stories of “you must save the world from destruction” are fairly straightforward. You live in said world. It would kind of suck for it to be destroyed while you are still on it. You have a built in investment towards the overarching goal.

You need to establish the motivation your character has towards the overall theme. Taking the example of the group, if you are someone looking to be influenced by the events of the world, this requires for you to get involved in them. Interact with others and the plot and not just sit idly around.

I attended an improv workshop two weekends ago. We had an exercise where we had to enumerate 5 desires a person might have. A one line description of the person was provided to us by someone else. So for example, I was given an office worker assigned to a very small cubicle. The five desires I chose were:

  1. To get an actual office.
  2. Tell off his boss.
  3. Make it to Friday’s “5@7”
  4. Go out on a date with the cute girl in accounting.
  5. His favourite sports team winning the championship.

The first four are very much in line with the person’s occupation. The last one adds depth to the character by showing he isn’t defined solely by his profession. This is often a “trap” we fall when we view our characters as a role or class. Certainly, in a more “adventuring” type game, the primary goal or ambition of the character could be steered towards that path. Adding unrelated or tangential goals adds depth.

4. Motivations

Now that you have defined what your character wishes to accomplish, you need to decide the “why” or motivation behind it. Why does your character want to kill the evil wizard? Fame, fortune, revenge, doing the right thing, etc? The follow-up to that is determine why this is important. If you want revenge; revenge for what? Why does this wrong need to be avenged? You can go quite in depth about a motivation or desire as you peel more and more layers. It’s up to the player or performer to figure out how deep in this process he is willing to go.

A similar exercise we had this past Wednesday in improv class was to play word associations with ourselves in the form of rants. We had to rant about a topic chosen by the audience for as long as we could. We were then asked to define why this was important to us and finally what would happen if the topic was no longer a problem. I’m not a whiner or complainer by nature but rather someone who tries to figure out the root cause and eventually find a solution. Therefore, this exercise was difficult for me to string a rant longer than a few seconds on mundane topics. I often found myself frustrated by the solutions being overlooked or ignored more than the “problem” itself. Nevertheless, it was a fun exercise to discover how far we can go down this line of thought and perhaps find what is at the core of a character. Once found, it helped flesh out how he or she might feel towards other things.

5. Action!

The last part is to act upon these goals but also determine the stakes. What are you prepared to do to accomplish your goals?

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Singing is on the to do list though.

How much does the character or person value this goal? What are you willing to risk? What is your personal stake? These can certainly change over time. A character might become more passionate or come to the realization the goal was superficial or fleeting. However, character development is another topic for another day. What is important is the individual act upon these rather than wait for them to be handed over. Something we can apply to our own lives.

 

 

Building character #2: Sex and Sexuality

I recently stumbled upon a blog post on the topic of Sex and Sexuality in pen and paper gaming. I found some of the considerations intriguing. When I create characters, I rarely put any emphasis or thought into their sexuality and only choose a gender based on aesthetics. Although the overwhelming majority of my characters have been male. I will not go into much detail about inclusiveness (I support it) and the need to do so. To summarize, I’d actually like to have a female player (or more) in any games I’m involved with because it allows for a different perspective and contribution to the role-playing experience.

The Challenge

That said, the stereotype of lonely gamers is not without warrant. I would attribute this to poor social skills and low self-esteem but also a very elitist mentality which can turn off women or “outsiders” from joining the hobby. At our table, we have one other major issue though. One of our regulars has an obsession with women with enormous breasts. Now at face value this doesn’t really sound too problematic. We all have our physical preferences in a partner. However, allow me to explain. Throughout our 17 years or so of gaming together, we’ve noticed this player only creates 2 types of characters: the ends justify the means brutal [male] character or the slut with cartoonishly gigantic tits who tries to seduce anything or anyone (seriously, he wanted to seduce a centaur in one campaign under the assumption it was hung like a horse).

[Insert image here]

This makes certain players, myself included, very uncomfortable at the table. On the one hand, his character tries to seduce our own which is awkward for most. Second, his characterization of women falls dangerously close to objectifying them at best, and a misogynistic caricature at worst. Now, before you ask why do we still play with him, I’ll also come to his defense. Outside of gaming, he’s a very progressive individual and a really nice and generous guy. So long as one avoids the topic of sex and sexuality. He supports equal rights while occasionally falling prey to things like victim blaming (i.e. you shouldn’t wear revealing clothing if you don’t want to attract attention, etc).

Now, are there promiscuous women in the world? Of course. However, the issue comes where the characters in this case are only motivated by sex or pure unfettered hedonism. Now, as a one off, this can be seen as a “blip” or just wanting to experiment a concept. But seeing this NEARLY. EVERY. SINGLE. GAME. FOR. 17. YEARS. has become tiring and also occasionally offensive to my sensibilities. His argument is he never gets to experience what he is looking for with the character archetype. A legitimate complaint, except it neglects to consider the other members of the group. After so long, it is clear we will not pursue the experience he’s looking for. Now, I’ve found techniques to placate him by brushing off, “fading to black” or summarizing what happens and move on. However, this does not dissuade his behaviour.

Seduction

On a side note, the other fellow game master in our group recently rejoiced when the player stated he would stop making female characters in his campaigns because the former didn’t understand seduction. This did not dissuade the player at the next opportunity however. I personally had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I found that statement ironically laughable but then realized I’d be the one who would have these characters come back over and over again in my games.

You see, the player himself doesn’t understand seduction beyond the physical. Often his approach in any game is to create characters whose stats represent physical attractiveness. In a sense, his portrayal of the character is that looks are enough to not only create attraction, but for the character’s targets to become blithering idiots willing to do anything for sex… after it is given freely. Now, one can view sex as a form of commodity. However, when given freely it devalues the gratification. So if you later offer the promise of sex in exchange of getting what you want, you lose leverage (and interest) in the negotiations. You see, these characters and the player think themselves manipulative without the irony of say a Cersei Lannister who thinks she is, but in reality isn’t.

Now, persons of power will attract members of the opposite sex by virtue of their social status regardless of appearance. High status individuals will have leverage from the get go because they likely possess what the other person wants. In this case, the character is offering repeat sex (already devalued because the novelty has worn off), and wants the high status person to more or less give up their own goals, assets, whatever to the person. This is not how seduction works. You have to flirt, build attraction, entice to make the person feel an overwhelming desire for sex with the seducer. A fundamental case of putting the cart before the horse.

The other way to deal with this as a fellow player in a game, is to create characters who wouldn’t be compatible with his. Women (although all his female characters are also bisexual) and other races when applicable. I’ve considered creating a homosexual male character as well. Although, I would make it painfully obvious it is a character who simply happens to be gay and not a “gay character”. The distinction is important.

LGBT

It is all too easy to make a male “gay character” flamboyant or effeminate. The reverse of the “butch lesbian” also falls in this camp. This is a matter of insensitivity or maturity because many gamers aren’t necessarily exposed to those communities. In fact, the crossover to video games and its community is strong and the words “gay” or “faggot” as derogatory are casually thrown about. While my table doesn’t have any LGBT players as far as I know, there is a sense of portraying such characters as a source of mockery. Something, I have been guilty of in the past. Surprisingly, in our Fading Suns game, we recently had the inclusion of a lesbian NPC. A very minor character, she wasn’t portrayed as a joke but was hitting on my character at a party. My character respectfully declined but managed to set her up with the female slut of our party for a one night stand. However, at the same time the NPC was a one-note character. Her only described characteristic was being a lesbian.

Ideally, a character’s sexuality shouldn’t have any bearing on others’ opinion but that is a naive position to hold. If a character is openly gay, other characters who are gay might look to the person as a potential partner or someone who sympathizes with them. Just like how a heterosexual male might approach a female who he is physically attracted to compared to meeting a random guy. Regardless of the situation, each situation requires a certain maturity but more so for the homosexual because of the history of prejudice. Bioware has been very inclusive in including romantic interests in their games across a spectrum. I recommend anyone to take a look at how it is treated there.

In our society, heterosexual relationships are seen as “normal”. There are rarely any issues where this comes up as problematic. Although there can certainly be cases of sexism, power dynamics, abuse or sexual assault involved. I find the latter two are often utilized as a way to show a character’s vileness where the first two are more subtle and often ignored.

SEX

As for sex itself, this all depends on maturity but also comfort in one own’s sexual identity. I am a heterosexual male, so will try to avoid coming off as talking down to the minority or repressed. North American culture is very sexually conservative in comparison to say Europe. When not being puritanical, it is often depicted as salacious or gratuitous in media. One need but look to HBO and its treatment of the subject as a perfect example. Even a channel which does not shy away from sex, it is often done in poor taste. Their scenes will include [female] nudity for no reason whatsoever. Perhaps it is my own views of sex, but I see it as something very personal and intimate. Such scenes turn me off both literally and figuratively because of the presentation. There is nothing wrong with casual sex and if others are into it, more power to them. I just don’t derive the same fulfillment from the experience.

Now as for gaming, because of that personal nature I ascribe to the act, I do feel discomfort in expressing it in front of others. I think this is something others might feel too. There’s also mental imagery. It can be hard to disassociate the player from the character visually. So if a player described a character while performing sex, for others they would be picturing the player during the act. This can lead to breaking boundaries between individuals.

Suggestions

As a game master/dungeon master/storyteller/whatever, I do try to imply to my players what sort of campaign I want to run so they can create characters accordingly. This creates and manages expectations among the players. As adults, sex will often be a topic as we are “more mature” than when we were teens. Unfortunately, there are some who don’t take the hint, and in the future I will flat out define the boundaries of my DM style but also allow the players to partake in a dialogue. For the most part, I think my table would be happy to do away with much of it. I see the way the other players tend to roll their eyes whenever the “problem player” acts (or attempts to) out his sexual fantasies.

As a player, I will ask the game master what he is looking to accomplish in his game. Does he/she want to tell a story? What style of campaign? What are the themes to be explored? These are questions which will help define your expectations and realize what best suits the campaign and table. This avoids the topic of sex and sexuality becoming an issue at the table; both if it plays an important part or is not included.

Racism in gaming

Despite what the title of this post might imply, I’m not going to go into a rant or discussion about racism about the gaming community. With female activists and other groups like Gamergate dominating the discourse of inclusiveness in gaming, protagonists in video games remain largely male and Caucasian. Further, few legitimate game productions deal with racism with any maturity or as a central theme. Even female characters will occasionally have that token moment where the female protagonist or a love interest will be shown as “bad ass” for physically beating down a creepy loathsome guy trying to sexually harass or abuse the character. I won’t retread those arguments here.

Rather, I would like to write about what I perceive to be ignoring an element of society. Suffice it to say, the gaming community is largely immature. The anonymity of the internet protects and gives forum for those who pursue exclusiveness to their hobby or outright bigoted views. Many gamers will go to great lengths to espouse how video games are becoming more and more like an art form. Certainly, there are plenty of legitimate comparisons. The most common comparison is a movie or TV show. While they are indeed visual mediums and there are many crossover elements, my experience in improv makes me lean away from such a classification because those forms are very much static and largely done with little to no input from the audience (except through targeted marketing and focus groups). The player is given a certain level of agency within the framework of the game. A first person perspective, which is difficult to pull off successfully in movies, has a built in immersive nature to the experience. You can literally look straight into the face of racists!

There are ways to tackle this subject. The most obvious is portraying more visible minorities as protagonists in games. This is the ideal situation to tackle the problem. From a business perspective this is viewed as very risky as conventional wisdom is to appeal to the larger community base (traditionally white males). Sidekicks, antagonists (when not goofy or racist portrayals themselves) also work. I’m in favour for more inclusiveness period. Showing, rather than telling is the best method. Preaching to people will fall on deaf ears or infuriate the hardened racists and potentially fail to reach people who could be receptive to the story and egalitarianism. These methods are preferably subtle. When someone acts cartoonishly racist or vile, you highlight only the worst offenses but ignore the minor and more pernicious ones.

A game proposal

The Shadowrun gaming universe was one of the few games to tackle racism as part of its themes. For those who are unfamiliar with it, imagine a dystopian future Earth crossed with Blade Runner/Matrix/Johnny Mnemonic meets Lord of the Rings. Fantastical humanoid races like elves, dwarves, orks and trolls live alongside humans. In fact, many of the first to “appear” in the world are humans who are transformed at the onset of puberty or during their teens.

Now, some of you might already see where this is going. My suggestion would be a game where the protagonist, in Fallout 3 fashion, undergoes a tutorial level where he goes through a few life events as a human in a very privileged and mildly racist environment. Eventually, your character undergoes the transformation into an ork (without changing skin colours). You are then unrecognized by family and friends. Cast out and forced to live on the streets, you must strive to pull yourself out facing difficult but not entirely insurmountable odds. The game wouldn’t be about racism entirely, but rather it would be a theme set in the personal development of the character. The main plot line would be something else. If racism was the central theme, it might turn off potential buyers or make the game feel too preachy for the general public. Sadly, I find myself having to advocate a more subversive technique. Hopefully, immersing oneself through the first person perspective and having to confront racism head on would play well.

Obviously, the non-player cast of characters in the game would have a wide range of views. Some might be accepting and helpful. On the far other end of the spectrum, there would be those looking to start lynch mobs and the like. There’d also be the aspect of some might be racist towards an ork, but perfectly accepting of an elf because they are more aesthetically pleasing to our eyes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, is that there are numerous shades of grey in the world and only by casting a sharp light to them will we find the contrast and hopefully improve society as a whole.

Building character(s)

Last night, my friends and I had a discussion about character in role-playing games and specifically character conflict. Our host was talking about starting a new RPG campaign using the Burning Wheel RPG. While I’ve never read or played the game, the selling point he and another friend of mine were touting was a sort of trait system which forced players to hold to a personality trait or belief established at character creation. They buttressed their argument by comparing pen and paper rpgs to a video game. They felt their current group of regulars had a video game player mentality where you are encouraged to seek the best possible outcome rather than act out how your character should or would.

Like the above except repeat for best results.

I can certainly understand where this opinion is coming from. In the group I play with irregularly, there is some crossover of players. I rarely see the other players initiate stories or ideas on their own. They are purely reactionary and only look to see how they can get the ideal result when faced with a dilemma placed before them by the game master. Rarely will the characters act upon their beliefs or personality. Rather, they look at the situation from a more objective outside point of view and then act upon it. This is very much a style of play we see in video games which might present you a choice, sometimes even more than two, but really there is one answer better than the others. As this is a Fading Suns game, one of the ways to earn experience to develop your character is express what you or your character learned from the session. Rarely will these players articulate what their character learned but rather what they as a player did or will refer to facts revealed during the session. The other option is they will state something I personally find quite weak but thrust it upon their character learning this (a laughable one being you need power to be able to do stuff coming from someone who is already a powerful character).

Now, this is not to say there is a good or bad way to play pen and paper RPGs or video games. These are simply subjective critiques. We can each derive our own sense of amusement from these experiences. So long as everyone is having fun the purpose of the game is achieved. The players I referenced earlier do have fun witnessing the story. They are not the protagonists but rather sidekicks or supporting characters. These are roles they feel comfortable with. I often become the de facto leader and main protagonist because I am more assertive or ambitious than my fellows. When we play games where I don’t play this role, the campaign tends to lack direction and eventually get abandoned. In my professional role, I am often more a mediator than a leader. I also feel more comfortable in that role from a personality perspective. Interestingly enough, the first few sessions of any RPG, I try to be the one who builds consensus until even my patience is exhausted before I just take charge in the face of paralysis.

Sandbox video games do offer more freedom. While most have a main plot which is more or less on rails, it is often actually secondary to the freedom the player has to explore or make whatever fun they want. This is accomplished through side quests, persistent worlds, or tools to be a total sociopath and just cause untold destruction and murder.

Or the main plot can be cliche and poorly written such so you don’t feel any investment in it and prefer doing anything else.

GTA IV is a good example of this. Despite lackluster driving controls, there is plenty to do in the game when you aren’t pursuing the story missions. You do have choices, even if a video game is significantly limited when compared to the possibilities offered by the imagination. The designers certainly made many memorable characters with personality which gave a certain vibrant nature to the world. This is the least of what a good pen and paper rpg can offer.

Now how this ties to improv, comes as we have begun to explore characters more and more in our classes. Last class, we took part in an exercise where we were crafting a character to take part in a scene. At first we began by walking around the room and were instructed to now walk like our character. Following up on this, we got home, and then had to prepare for a night out. Throughout, continuously acting as our character would in the various situations. We were then instructed to pick a name for a character and say it aloud. The instructor handed us a piece of paper giving us each an additional trait or quality we had to exhibit. In a normally heavily female dominated class, I decided to play a female character. I drew inspiration from an ex-coworker who was very status conscious and materialistic when it came to fashion and a lesser extent men. I was Tina Martinez. When I received the piece of paper describing my character as rich, I chose to have her wealth be through her husband. However, as we were then ushered into a facsimile of toastmasters and through the conversations with the other participants, I found myself adding more depth to Tina. She was largely lonely with her husband Ricky constantly away on business trips. She had one of those purse pooches she named Fluffy to keep her company.

In my writing or my rpg characters, I never really considered the character’s movement. Although lately, I have noticed while DMing our D&D 5th edition game, I am adding a more physical element than in the past. The players have largely responded positively to this. As an introvert, I often internalize or keep my feelings to myself. I have a very neutral or deliberate posture. Even touching others or being touched was a source of discomfort. With age, improv and my own dating experiences have made me more at ease. Often, my characters will be the stoic or reserved kind with an unflappable will once a course of action was decided. More a follow by example than by speech type of character.

The only character I am playing right now is very far out of my regular range. A fairly rambunctious young woman of slight build and height who is the boss of a group of mercenaries/ex-soldiers and a pretentious noble. She’s street smart but also very approachable and prefers to make friends or defuse tense situations with humour. I’m going to have to consider what kind of physicality to bring to the table when next I play her.

Illusion of choice: morality systems in gaming

With the release of the Witcher 3, I’ve gone back and started to play the second game of the series. I originally bought the game during the Steam Summer Sale back in 2014 but lack of free time and the difficulty curb conspired to have me put the game aside. Admittedly, I only went through one play through, but what leaped to mind were the choices the player must make. Now, Yahtzee broke down why Geralt is a “Mary Sue“, so I won’t retread that discussion here. Instead, I wish to discuss choices when it comes to morality systems in games.

In my lifetime, I’ve played a good deal of computer role-playing games and the like. Although I don’t consider myself to be a full-fledged member of the gaming community. I dislike a lot of things within the community such as the rampant misogyny, terrible discourse, and many of the consumer and designer trends. In my experience, morality systems are usually very poorly implemented. Players are pigeon-holed into a binary choice between pure altruism or acting like utter sociopaths.

Red lasers, blue lasers; modern gaming morality descends from G.I.Joe.

The systems give incentive for players to go “all-in” to one or another ends of the spectrum. Thus, being a moderate or “shades of gray” character is either discouraged or punished by denying the player gameplay options. I can’t be ruthless towards a horrible person and altruistic towards someone who I feel might be sympathetic. Even D&D, where the idea of moral alignments in a game took root, there were more than 2 choices (3 to 10 depending on the edition).

Among the binary choices, I felt only the Paragon/Renegade choices in Mass Effect 2 and 3 were well written. Of course, the case of evil facial rash was distracting in the 2nd game of the series. Dragon Age 2 gave a third option of sarcastic dialogue which added some levity but was otherwise more a companion reaction driven mechanic and for flavour. I was glad to see the dual morality system seemingly disappear during Dragon Age: Inquisition. Sure, I can understand the game should track your past decisions and how these would affect the world and the people within it. But shouldn’t this simply affect the reactions and effects around you indirectly and not something which rewards you directly?

The illusion of choice is that besides maybe the final cutscene, the narrative is totally unaffected by your moral decisions. Whether you murdered the guy the previous stage and took a dump down his throat or sent him off to prison, this doesn’t have any bearing on the story going forward. Star Wars is great and all, but Light vs Dark is a very simplistic narrative. Gaming is no longer dominated by kids but teens and young adults. TV has adapted by giving us layered and interesting characters. It’s time gaming grows up if it wants to be taken seriously as an art form. Also, treat women like human beings.

The time Dungeons and Dragons might have saved a life.

I haven’t hidden behind the fact I occasionally still play role-playing games. I’m currently involved in a Fading Suns campaign and running a Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition game. Back in the 80s, there was a genuine fear in the mainstream of the latter encouraging satanist practices or worse… concerns from the fundamentalist Christians obviously.

Two years ago, I was recruited by some online friends who I met through World of Warcraft, back when it didn’t suck, to run a D&D game. I recycled a campaign idea I had set in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting. The players were all new to the games but rapidly embraced the concept. Perhaps it was their previous gaming experience, but I noticed they quickly did a huge amount of research into min-maxing their characters. Some of them were pulling out stuff from very obscure books among the official stuff. Now, this could have easily led to escalation and an arms race between myself and them to keep the challenge up. Instead, I used the environment against them. The group found themselves trapped in the Underdark (for those unfamiliar with the game, think “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”), low on supplies and no idea where they were going except ever deeper. Claustrophobia, lack of light, and using weak monsters who were perfectly adapted to their environment made what might be trivial fights into challenging encounters.

I had a few ideas of set pieces for them to interact with. However, to add to the danger, I was rolling on the random encounter tables; something I usually prefer not to as it slows down the game needlessly. The players were level 3 and I received the result of a Beholder. Now, this creature is clearly way too powerful for the group, even a group of min-maxers. I decided instead to downgrade it to a beholder-kin. The creature was drawn to the group by the smell of their campfire (specifically, they were trying to make jerky out of some darkmantles).

Playing nice, I had the creature paralyze the guard on watch from afar before finally revealing itself into the light. The rest of the group’s adventurers were asleep but eventually woke up from all the noise the creature was making while devouring their food. The guard on watch was an elf and thus resistant to the charming attempts.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, one of the players, a writer in real life, was under the effects of cocaine during the session. When I described the creature to him over skype, he was quite disturbed. I interpreted his reaction as him being dramatically playing his character’s (a bard) reaction. Later, when the gnome druid of the group wanted to use the creature’s corpse as a manner of conveyance (the bodies float for up to a day after their deaths), the bard’s player was freaking out. His objections were quite vociferous and he was encouraging other members of the group to not only side with him but even so far as to go and defile the corpse so it could not be re-animated somehow and potentially do the same for the gnome druid if she continued to object. Eventually, I ended the gaming session as the group’s argument was becoming far more heated than I expected.

A face not even a mother could love.

The bard player missed the next two sessions. He was somewhat of a flaky player who styles himself a ladies man. I figured his absence was due to dates. The other players in the group eventually found out and told me he had been on coke during the session and had a really bad trip from the description of the beholder. This later prompted him to go into rehab. I still occasionally keep in touch with him and as far as I know he’s still off blow.

Just goes to show you how vivid and powerful imagination can be; particularly when under the influence or narcotics.

Underwhelming vs “Bad” games

Surprisingly, my most recent blog article was by far the most viewed since I started this exercise. While my stated purpose for this space was to improve my writing skills and not amass page views, it did spark an interesting conversation with coworkers during our lunch break. I suppose it is one of the perks of working in IT. Talking about video games in a public setting doesn’t draw criticism for being a “man-child”.

To begin, I would like to express my major impression of Civilization: Beyond Earth. I would not categorize it as a terrible game but rather an underwhelming one. Some of the mechanics were indeed broken at launch but later fixed with some patching by Firaxis. My main issue was the experience was sub-par to my expectations. These expectations were somewhat tainted by two previous entries in the Civilization franchise which on a whole did a far better job. As most conversations are prone to do, this led us on a tangent to a different game…

Dripping blood makes everything cooler apparently. Except cleaning up after it.

I recall the controversy shortly after the game came out. Expectations were through the roof following the success of the first game in the series. This being the sequel, everything was going to be bigger, better, and “more epic” right? Well, let’s first examine the origins of the franchise before delving into Dragon Age II proper. And yes, I do feel proud of tying that pun in nicely :).

Dragon Age: Origins

The internet video game reviewer Yahtzee describes three pillars to gaming. Before delving into these, I’d like to take some time to discuss my thoughts on Origins both past and present. I will be delving into spoilers from this point onward. The game came out several years ago so there’s no excuse not to play it or go read the plot on Wikipedia.

When the game first launched, I was looking forward to the release. Several years had gone by without any major trends of role playing game releases; the CRPG genre seemed to be teetering on the edge or irrelevancy. This was the same situation Bioware originally launched the great Baldur’s Gate back when I was still in high school. Today, the internet is filled with marketing towards the nostalgia market, Origins was the first real mainstream call back to the Bioware/Interplay games after a hiatus of a few years. The isometric view and graphics certainly hearkened back to these older games. Where it improved was on voice over written dialogue to better convey tone and more fleshed out secondary characters. This wasn’t entirely a new concept. Final Fantasy X had broken that barrier before. Except well, the voice acting was actually… not terrible:

I will spare you the actual clip for the sake of your eardrums and my own.

However, the main story was mostly generic fodder. Terrible threat looms over the world, only a reluctant hero from a dying order can save the world, etc. Even Loghain’s betrayal was foreshadowed early on in the game. It’s not to say it was poorly done, in fact it was competently written but nothing more. Where the writers excelled was setting up the context of the world. I found the situation of the elves and dwarves to be relatively refreshing compared to the standard fantasy fare in the genre. Bioware could have followed the example of other games or fiction writers and include those races in the same mold as Lord of the Rings and no one would have complained. They went and put an extra effort to help flesh these new versions and many gamers along with critics praised the game for this.

The ending of the game turns out to be a climactic battle atop a castle fighting a dragon which I found to be somewhat underwhelming. Much like the Batman: Arkham Asylum final boss fight against the Joker. However, as the saying goes: “it’s the journey that matters and not the destination.”

frabz-Thats-my-excuse-when-the-Coast-Guard-arrives-and-Im-sticking-to--977447

The Sequel

Naturally, after saving the kingdom and the world from the big bad threat of a single-minded enemy bent on destruction, expectations were high for the next game. Some of you will already be wondering why I skipped Dragon Age: Awakening. The expansion was more or less a side tale which had interesting elements like introducing us to a few characters but did little to advance the story in the remainder of the series.

Instead, the writers took a step back. The story of the game follows a family of refugees who flee the catastrophe of the start of the first game and try to make a new life for themselves in a foreign land. As my parents were immigrants to Canada, I can certainly sympathize with elements of this story. Unfortunately, I was not trained to fight with a claymore or hurl fireballs conjured from the ether. With many of the elements of the world (or lore) already established in the previous game and expansion, this was much more of a character study. This wasn’t so much the Lord of the Rings movies but more like Silent Hill 2. Unlike the first game, we had a non-silent protagonist. The context was Hawke’s relationships with those in his entourage and how time and events impacted him (or her) and his companions throughout the decade. Suffice it to say, it was a breath of fresh air in a mostly staid format. For a triple A game, it broke certain elements of convention and delivered a tight, focused story. It also delivered some great characters and certain memorable scenes:

The fandom revolted. I won’t go and quote every specific complaint about the story, but will paraphrase the main ones.

The story wasn’t epic enough!

This was the elephant in the room. A lot of players wanted this to be the continuation of the story of the character from the first game despite the marketing explicitly stated it would be a new protagonist, in a new region of the world. This wasn’t going to be the same struggle but rather a new one. Even the trailers showed fights involving the new protagonist and a new villain. Unfortunately, writers feel obligated to “raise the stakes” in subsequent iterations of a story in order for the audience to return to visit a character or story. Except, stakes are always viewed from an external perspective. Why can’t a character not face stakes of a personal nature? The Sopranos had Tony Soprano face off his uncle for control over their family right from season 1. Subsequent seasons often had internal conflicts Tony had to deal with. Yet, no one diminishes the show for not upping the ante.

Rather, the story aimed for a logical progression over time. When your character arrives in Kirkwall at the start of a game as a refuge turned mercenary, you are nearly begging people for jobs. After you hit it rich, the populace recognizes you as someone who “gets stuff done”. You are approached by citizens and even some of the power brokers of the city’s elite. By the time you get to the third act, the tone is one of deference and you are a factor in politics and the area. People look up and respect (or envy and loathe) Hawke.

EA pushed the game out early!

In fairness’ sake, I included a legitimate argument. Yes, the maps were recycled to cut time and costs. The textures were mostly the same within some areas too. I don’t brush this aside either from a design perspective. It takes you out of the immersion of the game. Personally, I value plot over gameplay to determine my enjoyment of a game. You can perfect the best game mechanics ever designed but I’ll quickly lose interest if there’s nothing there to make me give a damn about the characters or plot. Some people like COD. I am not one of them. To each their own.

We couldn’t play the Warden! or We couldn’t design our own character background. 

The designers chose to write a specific story which allowed some deviation on the choices the players make during the course of the game. Giving the players a blank slate very rarely gives any payoff in game for what you picked other than maybe the occasional throw away line of dialogue. Even Origins, which was lauded for giving you 6 origin stories, had very few tie-ins outside the initial tutorial. Besides, the mage story was by far the best one. Another game series, Final Fantasy, was almost predicated on completely making a different universe, set of characters, and challenges with each game. Why can one be accepted and not the other?

What most seem to fail to realize was the Warden’s story was more or less told during the first game (including DLC and the expansion). Yes, the Warden does appear in Dragon Age: Inquisition, it’s as a side character who is not the protagonist but rather the ally of the Inquisitor (the main character of the 3rd installment).

Other games will go with the silent protagonist and allow you the player to project yourself into the role as you mindlessly mow down enemies to make Charles Manson look tame.

The gameplay is not the same! 

I’m all for innovation and pushing the game genre further. DA2 was a bit too action oriented for me but the concept of tactics in DA: O was not really a challenge. The only difficult fights were due to the party AI or involved being ambushed. I do admit it was somewhat of a mistep, I felt DA: I hit the right mix of tactical gameplay and action oriented combat. Inquisition was my game of the year for 2014 and I will stick by it.

Anders was a whiny bitch!

Anders acts as the surrogate of the plight of the mages in the game. Although like many causes, he not only radicalizes but goes to extreme lengths:

Who’d of thought blowing up a Church would start a Holy war…

The complaint here is unless your character is a wizard himself/herself, you are more or less obliged to have Anders act as a mainstay in your group as the only healer. Thus, his preaching gets very irritating unless you decide to pursue a romantic relationship with the character. As is Bioware’s inclusiveness, he swings both ways.

Yet, the game portrayed strained relationships with your fellow companions well too. You could have a rivalry with some of them but maintain enough of a reason to hang out together. Or you could just ignore the character altogether!

Note: I am STUNNED I could not find a meme of emo Fenris to mock.

The larger a cast of characters, the harder it is to please everyone. You will always find characters who might not appeal to everyone. What’s important is you are interested enough to listen and follow the story itself and not just for the gameplay benefits. Overall, Oghren was a weak character in the first game. I felt Cole was a difficult character to like in the third.

Anders’ role in the story is to help get you invested in the third act. In a way, it can get irritating but it keeps the focus on the main plot. That said, I do feel a reunion with Bethany or Carver might have been a deft hand. The former is widely loved among the fandom and is genuinely a fun character unless you purposefully decide to act like an asshole to her. Carver’s envy of you might be played as either an irritant to make you as a character dislike the templars or perhaps a positive relationship between the two of you allow him to show growth and present the case of the order in a good light.

The Conclusion

Based on expectations, Dragon Age 2 was an underwhelming game as hype was through the roof. But it was far from a bad game. The writing is not the issue and it does play a much larger role in setting up the 3rd game which is by far the best. It has its flaws but if you’re willing to overlook or at least live with them, you will find a gem of a game. Afterall, few games, if any, are perfect.

Don’t believe the hype (in gaming). Civ: Beyond Earth expansion announced

On Monday, I stumbled upon Firaxis’ announcement they will be releasing an expansion to Civilization: Beyond Earth. Suffice it to say, this game very much reminded me of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. Back then, I was a young and impressionable teen who thought the Phantom Menace was going to be the greatest thing since well, the original series. When my friends and I emerged from the theatre, we were still under the haze of the CGI effects and thought it was “ok”. Within about half an hour of discussion our opinion evolved to it was mediocre. About an hour later, our view of the movies was decidedly lower than the general consensus. I won’t recap the reasons why, but a very in depth analysis has already been done.

How this relates to Civ: BE, well, the devs talked a big game and the hype machine was not so large as to signal red flags but still sufficient enough to generate interest. We all enjoyed Civilization 5, particularly after the additions included in its two expansions. When my best friend and I loaded up the game, we struggled at first as the devs had warned traditional strategies from the previous games would not prove successful in this iteration of the series. I figured out the idiosyncrasies by the 2nd playthrough. Instead we found other issues. The game was a re-skin of Civ 5 with fewer features, little personality, broken game systems, laughable AI, mediocre in-game choices, and micro-management of trade routes which made you feel like a train station operator rather than making meaningful decisions for the survival of humanity. Honestly, they had done better in the past. Now the game did not have a few improvements, I’ll skip to the point. Simply put the game was underwhelming.

By the time the next game came out, I was already skeptical and chose to wait for reviews. During the hype machine, Sid Meier himself was interviewed and stated his involvement in Beyond Earth was limited. As if to disown the game as the red-headed stepchild of which his name is attached. However, this time he assured the community he was more involved! And the game well, sucked. It seems the parallels grow stronger as I write. Now on to the expansion. The developers and publisher are already talking about features. Here’s a list of what they’ve said and my interpretation.

2K and Firaxis also promise an “overhauled diplomacy system,”

In the words of producer Andrew Frederiksen, “I think tweaked would undersell it. Diplomacy has been, for lack of a better term, completely ripped out and rebuilt from the ground up.”

I’m glad they recognize diplomacy sucked, and largely always did, in the Civ series. Their attempt to include a favour system was largely ineffectual. The AI gave favours freely but wouldn’t accept you to cash them in. With the AI being very weak, placating them was also counter-productive. Any diplomatic trades agreements were largely not worth it other than to improve your trade routes. However, I dislike the fact they choose to fix what they recognize to be a poorly implemented feature by including it in an expansion. What about the basic game? Shouldn’t this be a patch instead? If I go and buy another type of product and some of its features are broken or not existent I can get a full refund. Instead, refunds for games are horribly obtuse and difficult to obtain. If you’re lucky, you will get reduced store credit or something similar.

From Frederiksen’s description, traits seem like a more flexible version of policies from Civilization V. Where the cost of policies and the fact that only a few policy trees were mutually exclusive often discouraged switching them mid-game, traits are meant to be managed more actively.

Here, Frederiksen informs you they are re-packaging a previously omitted feature with some slight tweaks. Why was this feature not in the original game? The cynic in me wants to write “to package it as part of an expansion later”, while my “nice guy” side makes me think it was cut due to time. If the former, the dev publisher are trying to milk us, the player of money. If the latter, couldn’t this have been patched in? As someone who works in IT, normally a client won’t accept the delivery of an unfinished project (unless funds were lacking) or at least accept a staggered release with the promise of missing features added later. The video game industry instead prefers milking its customers. This might have worked years ago when the majority of “gamers” were kids with little disposable income. Now though, the average gamer age is trending upward.

The Rising Tide will also herald the arrival of four new factions; the only leader announced thus far is Arshia Kishk, head of the Al Falah.  As Beyond Earth’s story tells it, the Middle East was mostly depopulated after The Great Mistake. In the years that followed, a tenacious group of resilient survivors held on and refused to desert their homeland. When they finally managed to fund a spaceship send forth colonists, it wasn’t the cryogenic variety that most other civilizations sent. It was a generation ship, meaning that those who boarded it knew they would never see their destination, and those who touch down at the end of the journey have never set foot on a planet before.

The issue with the original game wasn’t explicitly the lack of factions but rather their bland personalities. To be fair, the above description is evocative and could potentially alter a civilization’s outlook and society. However, these games were never designed about exploring philosophies or outlooks and how they interact. At least not since Alpha Centauri. Rather, it was always about conflict. Also, pre-preemptively nuking Ghandi.

The final “big feature” is ocean colonies. This isn’t new having already existed in Alpha Centauri. In fact there was a faction based entirely on piracy. Well two if you count the ones about controlling the internet. The line which made me roll my eyes was:

As co-lead designer of Beyond Earth, David McDonough, put it during a recent phone interview, “It’s not just moving things out to the water; it’s not just blue terrain. We really changed some of the very fundamental ways in which you build cities, capture territory, develop, and grow, so that if you play at sea, you have a whole different strategic landscape.”

Yeah, totally not blue terrain.

Let’s deconstruct the statement. Likely, the construction of the cities will result in sea colony pods instead of regular colony pods. Again, something already present in the Alpha Centauri game. Strategic territory control will be diffused as more of the map will become available for exploration and exploitation. What that means, is controlling landmass is not as important or crippling to your rivals. Thus, conflict will be reduced as there are more resources available. One of the main reasons a player or players choose to play on maps with large bodies of waters is to promote these conflicts. What opening the oceans does is reduce the appeal of such maps.

I’ll await to see what other features will be announced. Right now, I recommend picking up Alpha Centauri on GOG and pick up Beyond Earth “Game of the Year edition” during a Steam sale once all the expansions are out.