Jason Brody’s Lethal Efficiency

Jason Brody in Far Cry 3

It’s already been pretty well established that Far Cry 3′s protagonist doesn’t work. Here’s how close they came to glory.

Jason Brody is meant to be a panicked tourist thrown face-first into the insane violence we take for granted. The opening tutorial casts you as the helpless NPC of an escort mission, freaking out as your brother breaks you out of prison with the easy violence of a real hero. “This is insane!” whispers Jason, as your savior casually throws a knife into a pirate’s throat.  ”Keep it together, champ,” he reassures you, with a perfect grin.

In a couple of minutes, that guy is vomiting blood onto the dirt as you try to hold a bullet-hole in his neck closed. This is what happens to heroes. When he dies, Jason is forced to take up the mantle of Videogame Protagonist – and in that moment, you really feel what an insane thing that is to be. Flailing at the controls, you fuck up your first kill and tumble wild and bloody into the river.

Alas, it all falls apart too soon. Minutes after Jason gains consciousness and you gain control, you’re single-handedly killing five men, each shot landing with perfect, cold efficiency. You are ruthless and untouchable, the very model of a modern action hero. The violence no longer feels insane, chaotic, meaningful; half an hour in, Far Cry 3 goes Full Videogame.

The story continues, apparently unaware that it’s main character arc has been abruptly completed. Jason grows more and more out of touch with civilization and reality, even as he saves his friends and gets closer to returning home. “When I killed a man for the first time, it felt… wrong,” he confides. “Which is good, right? But now… now it feels like winning.” It would be a beautiful moment, if only violence hadn’t felt like winning from the first time you picked up a gun.

Jason’s stumbling path down to Action Hero is thrown into light by a sharp dichotomy in the characters. The friends you rescue feel like real people; their voice acting is simple, broken, and naturalistic. Everyone outside is an NPC: Exaggerated, stylized caricatures that are all obviously insane. Spending all your time out in the world, you take everything they say for granted until you have to return to your friends. “I got this knife from an ancient chinese tomb,” Jason explains to his girlfriend. “It’s going to save us.” It feels like telling your mum what you’ve been doing in Skyrim.

That narrative arc is so good that it’s heartbreaking that it’s never reflected in the shooting. Imagine: starting the combat as a survival horror experience that you have to flee from as much as possible, then slowly getting better and better weapons and skills until the game becomes an easy, violent toybox. Shadowing that growing power fantasy with a narrative that suggested that you were becoming worse as a person the more skilled you became as a character – that’s brilliant.

The mechanics they went with point to a pretty common way of thinking about shooting. There’s only one good way to do guns: Precise, efficient, and instantly lethal. Guns that are chaotic and unmanagable feel bad. Your character should respond instantly to your input. Wrestling to control a wildly out-of-control character isn’t fun.*

Going for that efficiency has given almost every shooter protagonist the same character. For a cold, ruthless machine like Adam Jensen, these mechanics fit. When the hero is a sloppy everyman like Jason Brody or Nathan Drake, though, you suffer this severe disconnect. I don’t think the problem is that these two average joes kill so many people – I think it’s the fact that they seem like completely different characters when they do it.

In a lot of ways, this problem is an inescapable part of AAA development. I doubt anyone knew anything about Jason Brody when they started making the shooting mechanics of Far Cry 3. Given a blank slate of “Make the guns satisfying,” the designers went for lethal efficiency. When the writers came along months later, they ignored those mechanics in exchange for making the most interesting main character they could.

I can’t blame either of those parties, but I’d love to see shooters convey more character. The gleeful joy of Mario’s jumping, the panic of Amnesia’s sobbing, fumbling protagonist, the brute, cackling power of TF2′s heavy. Let’s see some shooters that are made by thinking about the character, not the guns.

*An understandable idea, but I think Messhof’s output pretty much disproves that completely (Try jetpack basketball).

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Systems in Snake Eater

I played Metal Gear Solid 3 for the first time last week, and I was shocked to discover that the interactive cutscene I’ve heard so much about has secretly been an Immersive Sim this whole time. Snake Eater mashes the game design of Deus Ex with the omnipresent cutscenes of a JRPG. I still can’t say why they did that, and I’ll have to leave discussion of the story for another post. What I really want to get into are the systems – something I’ve never heard anyone delve into.

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Storytelling

Game stories should be made with exactly the same principles we use for gameplay. That is: “Easy to learn, hard to master”.

First, you want an instant hook that can be explained in as few words as possible. “Save your girlfriend!”  Easy to understand, with no ambiguity. It gives the player motivation while wasting as little time as possible. Anyone who doesn’t give a shit about your story doesn’t have their nose rubbed in it.

Then, behind that simple goal, you want a deep backstory for the guys who hang around and talk to the NPC’s. Ideally, it should be strange, fragmented, mysterious and sad. You do it just by expanding on all the elements of the hook: Who is your girlfriend, and what’s your relationship to her? Who kidnapped her? Why?

The internet makes it obvious that people crave those answers.

Bowser and Peach are having an affair. You killed your rival’s pokemon. The zelda games all fit into a single timeline. Spend a lot of time looking at a ten-pixel sprite, and you start to ask – who the fuck is this guy? Where did he come from? If the game doesn’t give you that deeper meaning, it feels hollow. You have to make something up.

Most games fall too far on one side or the other. The Mario side has the hook, and nothing else. Works fine at first, but if you’re a fan you crave more. The other side cares too much about it’s deep lore, and forces you to read all of it. Because it’s not in the background, the mystery disappears. You need to start simple and make people work for more, so that finding out facts about the world has some meaning.

Silent Hill 2 did this well. “Find your dead wife”. A perfect hook: Simple, with complicated implications. Braid tried to do this, but ended up just force-feeding you backstory in-between levels. Dark Souls did very well at having mysterious lore in the background, but it doesn’t have a solid hook. It worked fine for them, but I think most games need starting motivation.

The best game stories should have the simple resonance of fairy tales. Each element is simple, but hints at strange, deeper meaning.

 

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Rotten Pulp

Rotten Pulp

I’ve started my own personal blog, Rotten Pulp. I’m going to use it to post various mind-dribbling’s related to the ever-amazing field of table-top RPG’s. Join me, and I’ll show you sights like this.

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#2 – Fists of Glory

As the sky glows a strange red, the PC’s discover a tiny forest hidden in a valley. In the center of the forest is a ramshackle house.

It’s sole inhabitant is Skips, a scruffy old man who’ll yell out to anyone he sees and ask them to do him a favor. “I trim these trees every day, but tonight I got something important to do. Could you do the job for me? I’ll make it worth your while!”

There are 20 trees, which must all be climbed and trimmed with big shears – takes an hour. Anyone who trims a tree must make a dex check or take 1 damage from the awkward shears. Skips will stay in the cottage living it up and taunting the PC’s, refusing to give them any food, rest or gold until the job is done. If he’s forced to finish the job himself, he must roll to avoid injuring his hands. If the PC’s complete the task as intended, he’ll give them 100 GP, a meal and a place to stay. 200 gold in the house, 50 in a secret stash in the fireplace.

At midnight, the sky will glow white and the trees will transform into transparent, humming crystal. A shining rectangle will descend from the heavens and part to reveal a floating naked woman with gold stars for eyes. “Skips! Another 157 year cycle has passed, and it is once again time to fight Clorgbane the Destroyer!” Clorgbane will crash to earth in a flaming meteor shortly after, emerging to lay waste to all he sees.

CLORGBANE: 6D6 HP, AC 15. An inverse-colored baby, wielding the GLOVES OF FEAR. “We meet once more, Skips! But this time it is I who will be born, and you who will fall into the negaverse!”

Clorgbane will smash crystal trees, then zap the shards with the gloves to create 2d4 tiny reflected hologram-men: 1 HP each, holo-knives d4. This effect will only work on Crystal Tree shards.

The woman will give Skips the Fists of Glory to fight Clorgbane. If he has been incapacitated, killed, or his hands have been injured, the woman will demand that the PC’s don the fists in his place. “I love both my sons equally. It must be a fair fight.” The fists can be split up so that two PC’s wear one each.

The FISTS OF GLORY glow red when thrust forward, and do normal unarmed damage. If a Crystal Tree is punched, however, the red glow intensifies into a laser that does 2D8 critical damage to anything in it’s way. If two lasers meet, they will create an explosion. Each time a laser hits another tree, the fist-wielder (Or “Fister”) can roll a intelligence check to make the laser bounce towards an intended position. If the check fails, it will bounce in a random direction – d8 for compass point. Any untrimmed tree will not reflect the laser’s light.

Whoever won – either Clorgbane or Skips – will float up and be embraced by the  woman, then be absorbed to be born back into the world as a fully intelligent baby in a matter of minutes. If Clorgbane wins, he’ll make the valley into a smoking black crater and establish a tower base in the center. If Skips wins, he’ll give the PC’s the Fists of Glory and go back to his hut. The loser will become inverted and fly back into the sky shouting curses.

CLORGBANE’S BASE: 3d4 Laser hologram guards patrol perimeter, hologram blade and crushing wall traps inside, Clorgbane in the center eating hologram feasts and surrounded by d100 beautiful hologram women. All holograms are supported by a complex network of crystal-tree shard mirrors that reflect the lasers from the Gloves of Fear on top of Clorgbane’s throne.

 

Appendix N: Regular Show episode #64, Fists of Justice. A friend asks the slacker protagonists to do his chores while he takes care of some business. When they blow it, it turns out that business was saving the world.

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Vance Adventure #1: Heathen Wheel

I’m planning to write a series of Jack Vance DnD Adventures, inspired by Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga. I may explain further later, but nutshell: The Players need to get from one place to the other, and there’s something in their way. Here’s number 1.

Razor Forest is visible ahead, with a giant wheel sticking out of the tree-line a day’s journey in.

At night in the forest, the PC’s are attacked by 2d4 RAZORDOGS. Wolves with rusty razors for teeth and organs laced with metal. Any PC who takes a good gnawing from one will catch Razor Disease. Drinking Holy Water will cure it, making them vomit up five meters of Razorwire. If left uncured:

Day 1: Painful guts. Day 2: Take 1 damage and vomit after eating food. PC begins to crave metal, which they can eat. Day 3: Teeth bleed. Wounds reveal shining flesh beneath skin. Midnight, Day 4: PC becomes a Razordog.

When most of the Razordogs are killed the rest will retreat and howl for help from the main pack of 3D10 dogs. The dogs can be evaded by carefully covering tracks, or by escaping to:Inline images 2

THE VILLAGE. A giant Ferris Wheel with a golden bird-god idol on the front looms over it. The village is currently in the middle of a big religious festival, thronged with worshippers and surrounded by fence strewn with charms. The fence may be jumped or bridged, but touching it will destroy anyone inflicted with Razor Disease (Reflex save or die (Give them fair warning)). Anyone with Read Magic can learn the charms in d4 hours and write them down to ward against Razordogs.

The single gate is guarded by the High Priest, who will welcome the party as fellow worshippers of the all-mighty BUNGUMBLEWITZ, ruler of the globe. None of the PC’s have ever heard of him. The High Priest knows that they must be joking, of course, and will usher them in to take them on a tour of the festival, starting with the Heretic Wheel.

“You wouldn’t believe the heretics out tonight! Why, just an hour ago I saw a man who could not perform the seven-fold handshake of Bungumblewitz when asked!” the priest chortles, extending his hand.

Any of the following actions will be viewed as the vilest Heresy:

-Ignorance of any of the thousand-and-one commandments of Bungumblewitz

-Refusing the advances of the Virgins of Bungumblewitz

-Failing to perform the sacred post-coital dance after coupling with a Virgin of Bungumblewitz

-Publicly revealing your belly-button (or “Devil nipple”)

-Anything weird/funny you can come up with on the fly.

Confirmed Heretics will be mobbed by 2D10 worshippers and tied into a carriage on the rotating HERETIC WHEEL. It’s a Ferris wheel with a golden idol of Bongumblewitz on the front, controlled by a nearby panel. When a carriage reaches it’s zenith, the top is mechanically pulled open so that the unbelievers inside may be grabbed and savaged by:

3D4 HARPIES, AC 12, HP d4, STR 8. They’ll work together to grab PC’s out of the carriage and then drop them to smash at the feet of Bungumblewitz.

If any heretics manage to escape the Harpies or otherwise defy Bungumblewitz on this sacred festival, the great golden idol of Bungumblewitz will come to life and tear away from the Heretic Wheel to savage all before him.

The idol is slow and will focus on generally rampaging rather than attacking the PC’s specifically unless they piss it off. Normal damage will only dent it, and it can crush buildings. It’s made of gold alloy, and could possibly be melted with great heat. If it falls over it will have great trouble rising.

The Heretic wheel is secured by fragile bonds: if the center pole is damaged by Bungumblewitz’s awakening or anything else, the wheel will fall down, wobble for a moment, then gather speed and roll over the fence, through the forest, and finally into the nearby River of Woe, taking along anyone inside it. Anyone tied into the carriage or wearing heavy armour will have to make a dexterity check or get help to avoid drowning. The carriages can be detached and used as primitive boats.

Possible festival attractions:

-Young worshippers put on flying contraptions and use them to fly as far as possible across a tar pit. Those who fly the farthest are the most blessed in the eyes of Bongumblewitz. All of them suffocate and die in the tar on landing, of course. Some say a true prophet will someday reach the other side of the pit.

-Sideshows asks punters to throw a paper plane through the eye of Bungomblewitz. Golden idols are offered as prizes.

-Sick and ailing worshippers may bid for the limbs of condemned heretics. If the harpies devour that limb, your illness will be cured.

APPENDIX N: “The Sourceror Pharesm”, in Jack Vance’s “Eyes of the Overworld”. The protagonist is sent back in time and almost sacrificed for violating the principles of a religion he knows nothing about.

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Dungeon Crawl Classics for noobs

Dungeon Crawl Classics is like D&D’s weird cousin with monkey skulls in his closet. Tomorrow I’m going to run it for some people who’ve never played a tabletop RPG before, having run nothing but a few sessions of Call of Cthulhu myself.

The book explicitly forbids this.

The rules assume a wise DM and jaded players. There’s a stack of rules for making magic and monsters interesting for veterans, but only a brief explanation of the basics. Several rules come with a caveat: “We know a lot of people will hate this rule, so just substitute another rule from one of the million other games you’ve played.”

Well, my players don’t know what a kobold is, and I had to look up “Saving Throw”. Bad combination, right? But looking deeper at the actual rules, I think the game could be perfect for introducing noobs – as long as the dungeon master is up to it.

First, DCC’s character creation takes place in a Darwinian “Character Funnel”. Every player gets a bunch of terrible peasants with completely random attributes, then runs them straight through a meat-grinder dungeon. Anyone who survives this natural selection gets to choose a class.

This actually works as a built-in tutorial. Classic DnD starts by asking you to make a character; if you don’t know the game, you’re clueless here. DCC starts with: “You can do everything a normal human can. You’re in this situation. What do you do?” Because you don’t have any special abilities, all the rules can be explained when they come up.

The hilarious death-toll of the character funnel works as the perfect tutorial. Because you have a bunch of level 0 characters pre-made, you don’t even lose any time when they die. So, the funnel teaches you how dangerous the game is without any actual risk.  You only make a decision about your character once you’ve learnt how the game works in this risk-free environment.

I’m going to be giving my players pre-made character sheets from this website, by the way. This way they can come in and start playing as soon as they sit down. I also think I’ll treat their extra 0-level characters as extra lives, rather than letting them control all 3 guys at once.

Secondly, it seems like the game is much more complex than D&D, but it takes that complexity away from the players and gives it to the dungeon master. Spells, for instance, each have a big table of possible outcomes, misfire effects, possible horrible corruptions the caster could suffer if they go wrong, and unique flavour effects.

That’s crazy complex, but the only thing the player actually has to remember for a given spell is a line like: “The caster hurls a magical missile that automatically hits an enemy.”

Everything else is totally variable. It could do one point of damage, it could let fly multiple screaming eagles, it could turn their hands green. It makes magic strange to the players, with the side-effect that the player doesn’t have to keep any rules on their character sheet; just the basic thematic idea of “A Magical Missile”. A new player can engage with spells on a purely thematic level, without thinking about numbers.

The third secret is: It’s ok to be a terrible player, because you’re going to die anyway. Dungeon Crawl Classics is a lot like Call of Cthulhu. As you progress you get more and more corrupted, demons start vying for your soul, your god gets angry, your luck starts to run out, and your inevitable doom stalks a little closer. But it’s ok! Losing Is Fun.The character funnel is the perfect way to introduce that idea to new players, and once they’re on board the game becomes a hilarious roller-coaster ride into death.

So, with this reasoning, I’m going to run Death Frost Doom for my noobs. It’ll either scar them forever or make them into heroes. I’ll tell you how it goes.

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Skills

“My biggest complaint for computer games so far is they are not good enough for adults. For adults to enjoy something, they need to have intellectual stimulation, something that’s related to real life. Playing poker teaches you how to deceive people, and that’s relevant to real life. A headshot with a sniper rifle is not relevant to real life.”

-Jenova Chen

As a game designer I can understand that Jenova Chen needs to deceive people more often than he needs to use hand-eye co-ordination, but every high-skill game teaches you something useful. Depressingly, the opposite idea seems ingrained in both designers and critics;

“In more than twice the time it would take to read Tolstoy’s historical fiction, Dark Souls leaves one’s head overflowing with useless junk like the difference in attack stats between a Great Axe with a fire bonus versus a Great Axe with a divine bonus.”

-Michael Thomsen

These complaints miss the point like a high school math class. “When am I ever going to need to know the value of X in the real world?” is the wrong question: The important part isn’t the answer you get, but the skills you use to solve the problem.

Like the best games, Dark souls is perfectly calibrated to teach you the skills you need to beat it. By going through the process needed to beat the game, you gain incredible mastery over those skills. In order for that knowledge to be useless, Dark Souls would have to have invented a set of skills used by nothing else in existence. I consider this logically impossible. Mastering any kind of pursuit is relevant to real life, because every possible skill is used by a million other pursuits.

Dark Souls constantly tests your skill by raising its difficulty over a hundred hours – and then keeps raising it above that as much as you want, via the New Game Plus option. Even if you master that, you can match your skills against other human players via PVP. I can’t credit the idea that Tolstoy will teach you more than that. He doesn’t even require you to understand before he lets you pass.

The only type of game that won’t help you solve real-life problems is one that doesn’t have a high skill-ceiling. Games that are easy, have no higher strategy, or focus on art and story. Like Journey.

 

 

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Wasteland 2 makes a social blunder

Brian Fargo and the RPG community just teamed up to kickstart 1.5 Million dollars for  Wasteland 2, an old-school postapocalyptic RPG. It was the perfect date, until Brian started getting a little too friendly:

“At 2 million we will increase the staff to make the game more social so that it can become a more shared experience. We like the concepts of dropping notes into the world for your friends who are playing the game, or perhaps we may allow you to send an item their way from Ranger center to help them out. We are fleshing out the ideas but  intend to increase the social aspects of the game without diverting it from being an old school RPG and without hurting the balance.”

This update sparked rage, complaints, and comments like “…I pledged more than I pay for my monthly rent, but seeing the game pushed into the direction of a fallout clone with SOCIAL COMPONENTS is making me consider ditching my pledge in favour of a $15 hold out hope of the game not turning into a steaming pile of rotted feces. Please tell me you’re joking. WastelandVille? Say it ain’t so. ”

It’s important to clarify what kind of social components Brian’s talking about. In an interview with No Mutants allowed,  he compared his ideas to the message system in Demon’s Souls. That game lets you make messages by combining pre-made phrases (“Be wary of” | “Traps”, for example) and leave them as graffiti for other players to find. It’s impossible to say anything out of character or give away plot twists, the whole thing is justified as part of the game’s world, and it’s not there as a way to monetize the game. “WastelandVille!” isn’t a rejection of the way Demon’s Souls does things; it’s a blanket negative response to the word “Social”.

So to sum up: The game was announced over twitter, built interest through likes, shares and plus 1′s, sought funding via kickstarter, and finally reached it’s goal because 30,000 RPG fans from across the globe united into a single online community with the power to make this happen.  And now a subset of that same online community is making an online protest, because the word “Social” has no place in RPG’s. That’s the genre that is, lest we forget, based on a multiplayer game.

With that much irony I don’t think I’ll ever need to eat red meat again.

I don’t expect Brian to stick to his guns on this one. The fans funded the game, and he’s made it clear he’s going to take their wishes into account. I worry more about the smaller guys. If you’ve got a name as big as Brian Fargo’s, you can afford to ask people to hand over 50 bucks for a premium product. As a struggling indie, though, the general wisdom runs; give your game out for free or very little, let players pay more if they like the game, and let them play with friends so that every fan creates two more.

I believe these things can be done without becoming a Farmville money-grab, and I’m interested to see them in an RPG. I enjoy connecting with games in a social context, and I have to imagine that every one one of those forum posters does too. It’s just a shame that the entire concept of socialization in a game brings out so much hate from hardcore gamers, and a shame that I won’t get to connect with other people in Wasteland 2.

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Ode to the Witching Hour

It’s late, and everyone’s off the street except a few derelicts and weirdos like you. All is quiet. The moon looms low and massive over the landscape. That’s the Witching Hour.

I’ve been in love with solitary night scenes ever since I first played Curse of Monkey Island. Maybe it’s because they’re the polar opposite of the explosive froth games normally try to whip you up into, or maybe it’s because they fit so well. We’ve always been better at empty rooms than wild parties. The simplest possible game is a character walking around a black screen; by default, games are lonely things. 

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