Tag Archives: Games

Review: A Mind Forever Voyaging

If you been reading this blog for more than few weeks or so, you probably know of my obsession for older computer games of the 80’s and 90’s. I’ve long looked at computer games as the perfect synthesis of my two main passions, writing and programming, and if I was more of an artist I probably would be trying to write my own indie games now.

A_Mind_Forever_Voyaging_Cover_FinalBut in the meantime I love reading about them, and for any of you who’ve been curious about why I love these games so much, you’ll be in for a treat with Dylan Holmes’ A Mind Forever Voyaging. Holmes takes an academic approach to gaming, examining both the ludic (play mechanics) of games and their narrative thrust (be it through text, cut scenes, actions of the player, etc.). But this is not a dry book. Holmes has explored every nook and cranny of these games and at times the book is as much his personal narrative of enjoyment as it is analysis.

While some might quibble with a couple of his choices (I’m not sure why we needed two Metal Gear Solids despite the shifts in tone), most of the games chosen are games I’ve played and loved. Each is an advance both in the way narrative stories are told, and in the way the player interacts with that story.

Holmes obviously loves these old games, and doesn’t automatically dismiss them because of poor graphics. But he does examine the ways in which these games succeed and fail at presenting moral choices (as in Ultima IV) apply cinematic techniques and a variety of game play (Final Fantasy VII and The Secret of Monkey Island) and the ways in which emergent game play goes beyond the expectations of the original programmers (Deus Ex).

Holmes takes a balanced approach toward games and treats them as a distinct medium. Often game analysis has either focused on the narrative elements alone (which can be lacking especially in sprawling epics like Final Fantasy VII or Shenmue) or only on gameplay (ludic) elements. While certain games definitely focus more on one than the other (the recent Unrest is almost entirely narrative driven, and games like the original Super Mario Bros. are largely ludic in their experience), the best games make good use of both techniques.

As with many video game books, Holmes is a bit of evangelist for treating games more seriously as a medium. Even in a society where games are played by people in their thirties or older, and where they make more money than some movies and books, they are still dismissed as something childish. And Holmes also addresses some of the ongoing challenges of technical requirements, and the ephemeral nature of games as compared to other media.

A movie from ten years ago can feel just as fresh (sometimes even more so if the filmmaker was particularly prescient about the future), but video games can age badly. I’d argue that anything made after about 2003 will still look good to a modern audience, though Holmes would contend this was actually a pretty fallow period for video game story telling (something I would tend to agree with given the richness of the previous decade). This makes writing sequels or ongoing series difficult, and why long running series like Final Fantasy will often reboot their narrative with each installment, keeping the same flavor of story, but not requiring experience with the previous game.

Ultimately I think this book has something to offer for both fans of games, and those curious about some of these great games they heard about growing up. While it might not convince those who dismiss games outright, Holmes does make a good case for the medium and its continued growth (and some of his own hope for the future).

You can buy this book (and others) as part of the Video Game Bundle V (on Story Bundle) for the next week or so. For $3 you get this book and three others, or for $12 you can get all eight books. I’m reading the Super Mario Bros. 2 book now and would recommend it as well.

And if you want to play any of the games Holmes writes about, fortunately they are even easier to get ahold of than they were when Holmes wrote the book a few years ago. Planetfall (as part of the Zork Bundle), Deus Ex, Ultima IV are all available on GOG (Ultima IV is free). Half Life, The Secret of Monkey Island (Special Edition) and Final Fantasy VII are available on Steam. The original Dear Esther is available on ModDB and the remake is available on Stream. Facade is available for free download here.

The Metal Gear Solids are a little harder to get a hold of and require original media (but used PS2 are still pretty easy to find to play them on). Heavy Rain is modern and should play on the PS3 or 4 and should be able to be easily found used. The original System Shock is a little more tricky (though I found my untouched copy for $1 at Half Price Books so you never know). The portable version Holmes suggests does work, though personally I find the experience is actually better from the original media. I’m really not sure about Shenmue though that might be one that is better to read about than play.

As for some of the additional gaming he mentions, Myst, Another World, Fallout, Thief, The Longest Journey, Planescape Torment, Baldur’s Gate II and Grim Fandango (next week) are available on GOG (I own all of these and like them all). Final Fantasy VIII and Half-Life 2 are on Steam.

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AGFV: The End of the Blackwell Legacy

Today’s the launch day for The Blackwell Epiphany, the fifth and final entry in the Blackwell indie adventure series.

In it you play as Rosangela Blackwell a spirit medium or “bestower of eternity” who helps guide lost spirits to the other side. Your partner is Joey Malone, a spook who’s been dead since the 1930s, and who has been tied to the women of your family since your grandmother got stuck with him.

BE-shot1

What this practically means is a lot of detective work. Spirits don’t know who they are or even accept that they are dead in some cases and it’s your job to find out and help them to accept it. In the process you uncover crimes both terrestrial and supernatural.

BE-shot3

Each game is only about 3-5 hours long so it’s better to think of them as episodes in a season long game like the work that Telltale is doing (even though the first entry in the series was released in 2006). This last game is supposed to be the longest yet, taking its creator (who presumably knew the solution to everything) 5 hours to complete.

The Blackwell Games are a bit of a throwback, point and click adventure style games using pixel art that was present in games of the early 90s. Think Sierra’s “Quest” titles or LucasArts later SCUMM games. The developer (a four person team out of New York), Wadjet Eye Games, has produced a long series of games using the Adventure Game Studio engine, all of which are quality titles well worth the playthrough. Particular favorites of mine are Resonance, Primordia and The Shivah (Wadjet Eye’s first real game).

I played through the extended demo available on GOG and Wadjet Eye’s website and can’t wait for the released version later today. Gameplay has definitely improved since some of the earlier entries in the series, Rosangela uses her phone to look up clues and contact people rather than always having to travel back to her apartment and use her computer. One of the first puzzles is how to get inside a locked building (a handy trope of the series which involves sending your ghost envoy Joey in first, even though he can’t touch anything). The solution’s not the most obvious from the clues given, but most of the rest of the puzzles in the demo are solvable with a little thinking, and judicious use of each character’s unique abilities (Joey can’t touch anything but he can blow light objects like paper in your direction).

BE-shot13b

What I love about these games is the engaging mystery, amusing character dynamic, and fun puzzles that aren’t as obtuse as some older adventure games. It’s the best of games I played as a kid with less of the frustrations. The voice acting in the series can be a little over-dramatic at times, but I think that’s part of the indie charm, and what other series let’s you hear bloopers of the voice actors recording their characters after you complete the game?

And let’s not forget the music (the soundtrack for this game is over an hour), a mix of jazzy and electronic tracks that really set the tone of a cold New York night.

I can’t wait to play the rest of this game. Why are souls being ripped in half and will Rosangela be driven to the brink of insanity like her relatives? Why is Joey bonded to their family and is there an achievement for drinking coffee 50 times?

Do yourself a favor and at least check out a demo of the first game on Wadjet Eye’s site if you’ve never played this series. Or alternatively you could watch a let’s play of the entire first game here.

~All images from Wadjet Eye games, trailer from GOG.com

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What else can you do?

I’ve occasionally thought about what else I might do that requires 100s of hours of effort for uncertain payoff.

Actually the answer is quite simple: write games.

Specifically isometric turn-based RPGs, preferably ones with a lot of text dialog and 100s of hours of gameplay, in the fantasy or science-fiction genres.

Now you may think this is just a coincidence, given that most of what I spent last weekend doing was playing one such game (Avadon: The Black Fortress), but I’ve liked this particular format for a while, and have thought it would be interesting to take the time designing one of my own.

Think about the writing challenge. If you want a good RPG, you don’t want to funnel people into a linear narrative so you have to be able to give them bits of the story that can be rearranged in any order. And you have to allow for the possibility that whole sections of the game will go unplayed, but still have a story that makes sense and is satisfying to the player. And if you’re really ambitious, the story changes based the player’s actions, and grows and evolves into many possible stories.

Writing a game is like combining all the possible iterations of a novel into a single art form. That would be a fascinating challenge.

And I think I could write the game engine for an isometric game, and do it in a way that others could create content for it when I’m done. It would probably run on older machines, and be casual enough for the beginner player, but deep enough for the experienced as well.

The problem is a lack of any particular artistic ability for pixel drawing, but maybe I could hire somebody. Certainly a team would be helpful. And somebody to do the music or write additional dialog. And test the sucker.

Oh yeah and time, ridiculous amounts of it.

Ultimately the purpose of these ideas is to just get my brain running in a different direction for a while. Thinking about designing a game is what gave me the idea for one of my books, DM, and has some relation to how I think about others. And if nothing else, the thought experiment gives me a better appreciation of the work others do.

Still it might be an interesting side project…

I have too many ideas for one lifetime. Ah, well 🙂

What other things have you thought about doing that you decided against?

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Crossing The Finish Line

You’ve been working on a book for a year, perhaps more, and you are finally approaching the end of some significant milestone (first draft, first revision, or possibly even publishing), what do you do to celebrate?

My first draft of my first novel ever written took four years. I finished my senior year of high-school and my reward was a bottle of sparkling grape juice (closest thing to champagne for an 18 year old) and the realization I had 193,000 words to edit. (BTW, the book in question is titled Atlantia and I redrafted the first 50,000 words of it a few years ago for NaNoWriMo. It’ll come out one of these days).

Since then I’ve often used champagne as my little reward for a job well done, which is funny since the little red haired girl has to open the bottle. Never have gotten the hang of how those corks pop. (Some psychologist might say it goes back to a childhood game that involved sitting on balloons to pop them which also explains my distaste for the sound of a popped balloon).

For the Fractal Book I’ve selected a game (and the accompanying time to play it) as reward, since it’ll be the first to be widely shared with the world. True to form the game is a sci-fi RPG from 1999 which features songs from David Bowie and apparently an in-game concert appearance by a character modeled after him, Omikron: The Nomad Soul. (Never been a giant fan of Bowie (I didn’t grow up liking the Labyrinth) but the game sounds cool). I’m holding off on buying it til I’m finished to avoid the temptation to play it and put off the book.

I’ve bought plenty of games (and the occasional bottle of champagne) prior to the completion of the book, but it’s kind of fun to have a specific reward in mind, something I’m denying myself until I’m done. Just a way to sweeten what’s already gonna be a pretty great moment (finishing the book).

Got any big plans for your next big novel milestone?

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I may not be OCD, but I play one in real life

Ever played the game Stratego?

It’s kind of like chess combined with capture the flag (and maybe some minesweeper as well). I was doing my usual thrift store run on Friday and came across a set for $2.00. Stratego has a lot of pieces (80 in the version I found), and with thrift stores you can never quite be sure if you’ve got everything you need, but it looked close enough so for $2.00 what the hell?

Each player has 40 pieces each of which has a numeric value associated with it, as well as some with special functions (bombs, spies, miners, etc.). Your opponent can’t see what the value of your piece is (they just see a bunch of generic looking pieces), so all of your pieces need to look the same on one side, and to play a good game you need to have all, or at least the same types of units on the other.

Well, after sorting each piece into the slots the game provided I came up five short. Because of the values of the pieces in order to have a fair game I’d need to take the corresponding pieces away from the other side so I’d have a 35X35 match instead of 40×40.

But hey this was from a thrift store so I thought, what if I just find another one and combine the two games into one. Now because the pieces need to look the same I’d need to find the same edition, but I was feeling lucky.

I first went back to the same thrift store and by some chance they had another Stratego set, but this was the one from 50 years ago, and had even less pieces than the set I had (the pieces were radically different in design and much smaller).  Some later online research uncovered that there was someone on Amazon selling pieces of this older set for $3.00 a piece. If I’d wanted to I could have picked up the set for $2.00 and sold the 60 or so pieces for $3.00 a pop (or better yet $2.50 cause it’s kinda slimy to sell individual game pieces for $3.00 a pop and I wouldn’t mind annoying whoever’s doing it).

Anyway, no luck on Friday, so I’m running some errands on Saturday and decide to hit up Half Price Books (Lane, Bethel and Graceland) as well as the VOA (Volunteers of America). No joy. And online for the same edition is $100+ since it’s maybe 8 years old and there have been several others. Seems kinda ridiculous to pay that much for something I initially payed $2.00 for. Even $3.00 a piece guy would cost $15.00 and that’s if he had my pieces.

So I’d been pursuing this for a while, and I thought, well, I want to play this game so I ought to just buy it new. Kroger and Target both had it ($17 and $15 respectively , but it was a new retooled edition. Instead of Napoleonic era pieces, it was in space and was now a 30×30 match instead of 40×40. I hate rule changers, be it prices in Monopoly, or things to make it easier or more streamlined. Strategy games are supposed to take a while, and frankly even $15 is a lot of money to spend on something that is less than the thing I paid $2.00 for.

This search for the pieces was followed by an evening of trying to get my Win 95/98 computer version of the game running in a modern system. I tried it on my XP netbook, Win 7, virtual win 98 and virtual win XP before getting it to work in the VM XP. And even that copy will only play once per VM boot. I have to restart it if I want to play again.

So if you’re still reading, you’re probably wondering why go to all this trouble?

Well I’m a sentimental kind of guy, and seeing Stratego in that thrift store reminded me of when my friend Chris first bought me the computer version almost 15 years ago. Also, my wife and I also play a lot of Risk and I thought it might be nice to find something a little shorter to play that still had some of the same kind of thinking. But no small part of this was the fact that something was incomplete, and I needed to finish it. You wouldn’t know it from the clutter I’m sitting in, but I like order, and it bothers me when things are missing, even if I didn’t lose them.

This is something I probably need to loosen up on. I’m sure my wife and I can enjoy this game even with a few pieces missing, and if I had complete sets of everything I just have pieces of I’d be buried.

I do find it interesting how one little discovery can lead to childhood memories, new technological discoveries, and finally the satisfaction of playing something that works. And I am very thankful that I have a wife who understands these compulsions and still wants to play with me.

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System Shock 2 (13 Years Not Too Late)

It may seem strange to review a game from 13 years ago, but just because it isn’t the latest and greatest doesn’t mean you should ignore an old game. These underrated gems still offer unique gameplay, and System Shock 2 shaped FPSs and RPGs for years to come.

Level Design: I’ve played a number of sci-fi shooters before, but none with such a clearly laid out ship design. Instead of being shepherded down a single path, each deck is arranged functionally, with many different paths and countless nooks and crannies. This is one thing I love about game engines from this period, big open spaces with admittedly less detail but greater scope and less load screens. Authenticity of experience is more important than intricate detail in my view. And the environment changes around you, it really is a living ship (at least in one sense of the word). There’s a nice nod to the first game in the last level which shows the love the game designers had for this material.

Levels

Enemies: There’s a nice mix of biological and technological opponents as well as things in between. The game has been criticized for the hokeyness of some enemies, including psi-monkeys and cyborg ninjas, but I don’t think this takes away from gameplay. Rather I think it adds a little humor to what is otherwise a serious story. Difficulty rises nicely with ability, but even grunts are not routine (those monkeys can be hard to hit)!

Story: This is by far one if the most unique features of the game. Rather than telling the story in cutscenes, bits and pieces are revealed through log entries, commuications with unseen helpers, scripted events and ghostly encounters. The logs especially add to the feeling of a living ship, portraying more than a dozen perspectives on the grizzly events. The story itself is pretty straightforward, a ship is in deep space when they are hailed by a nearby planet. Those that land bring back a hostile alien lifeform which infects the crew, turning some into zombie hybrids and others into far worse. But something else came onboard, a hostile AI with delusions of Godhood. She created the aliens and she wants you to destroy her rebellious children.

SHODAN: Easily one of the best villains of all time, with a creepy distorted voice, and no desire to hide her disgust for a worthless bag of meat such as you. And yet she needs you, at least for now. Her reveal in the middle of the game is a great twist and makes you see the game you’ve been playing in a whole new light. She’s not just evil, but lacks moral constraints of any kind, and has a great and terrible vision for humanity.

Shodan

Content: Shock is gory at times but not to the degree of one of its contemporaries, Half Life. It’s more scary than gross, but the second to last level is disturbing, you enter “the belly of the beast” literally. Fortunately this section is short, though I wish they had called doors something besides sphincters.

RPG:A good blend of skills and weapons. It emphascizes hackers and psi-ops but that’s better than plain soldiers anyway.  Weapons degrade when used but I think maintenance is a better skill to emphasize than repair. Psi abilities are the most stable and have more ammo. You can change your strategy without restarting the game, which is more flexible than the upgrades in Deus Ex.

Overall a game you should definitely get your hands on, even at closer to a premium price. If you do get a copy you can use my guide to getting it up and running and enhanced. This is one I’ll probably be replaying in the near future (okay already am).

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AGFV: Shock to the System

“Look at you hacker. A pathetic creature of meat and bone, panting and sweating as you run through my corridors. How can you challenge a perfect, immortal machine?” ~SHODAN

And so begins one of the most legendary sequels of all time. Unfortunately, due to the copyright hell of law firms buying up expired contracts from defunct gaming companies, just getting a copy of this game is more than half the battle in getting it running in Windows 7. To those of you who were fortunate enough to buy a copy back in the day (or those willing to shell out beaucoup dollars for it later), these tips and tricks should not only help you enjoy your investment for years to come, but experience it in a new light.

Step One – Install the Game: Hey, for once this actually works in a fairly conventional manner! Since this is a 16-bit installer, you’d expect it to have trouble in a 64-bit operating system, but fortunately compatibility mode for XP seems to solve this problem. (Alternatively you can just copy the contents of the “Shock” folder on the CD, but why not enjoy antiquated Win 98 style install screens!)

AfterInstallScreen

Choose the FULL install, as we’ll eventually be running this program without the CD (wouldn’t want to damage it J). Don’t install DirectX or register the game. The version of DirectX you have is far better, and no one’s at home to take your registration anymore L. For now hit quit on the front screen (I promise you’ll be playing soon enough)!

Step Two – Download SS2Tool_v3.6: Fortunately, in the 13 years since this game was first released, a dedicated community of fans has worked on a number of tools that fix bugs, and help System Shock live on modern systems and resolutions. This patch also prepares Shock for the mods we’ll be installing to bring the game up to 2003-2004 quality! You can download this patch from here.

 

Step Three – Install the SS2Tool: Copy the tool into your game directory and double-click to launch it. The default component options should be fine, though you can always uncheck undesired capabilities. If you copied the tool into your System Shock directory, it should recognize the correct location of “shock2.exe”. If this location is correct click “Install”.

SSToolInstall

BeforeDirectoryStructure

You’re going to see a lot of quick pop-ups. DO NOT BE ALARMED. Most of these are scripts to move files into the modded configuration. You may get an access error on some files including the EXE. Retrying seems to get past this problem. When installation is complete your folder structure will have significantly changed.

Step Four – Check your resolution: The cam.cfg file contains resolution properties of the game. These should have copied correctly, but if not you can change them by adjusting the “game_screen_size” line. Width is first, then height.

Step Five – Set compatibility mode to XP for “shock.exe” and check “Run as Administrator”: Right click at choose “PropertiesàCompatibility”. At this point the game is playable in all its 1999 glory, but there are some things we can do to further enhance its appearance. When you play the game for the first time it may take a while to load (don’t be alarmed!).

CompMode

Upgrade your textures: All mods for the game are placed in your “DataPermanentMods” folder. Typically these come in zip files which you can extract the contents into this folder. The first we’ll apply is SHTUP, short for Shock Texture Upgrade. You can download it from here. Full details on this mod can be found here. To install the mod, copy the zip file into your “DataPermanentMods” folder and “Extract All”. Select “Yes” for any overwrites. Once the zip file is unpacked, you can delete or archive this file. After SHTUP is installed you’ll have a folder structure like this:

ModDir

Upgrade your character models: SS2_rebirth_v02, or System Shock Rebirth, upgrades the character models with smoother curves, and modified character designs. Some of the designs suffer a bit from typical male tendencies (over accentuated proportions), but on the whole this model is true to the original. Of particular quality are the horrified expressions on the model’s faces *shiver*. You can download this mod from here, and install in the same fashion as SHTUP, copying the zip file to “DataPermanentModes” and extracting the contents.

Upgrade your music: The sound and music are pretty high-quality in the original, but you can always have higher fidelity. Download SHMUP from here, and install like the other mods. If you just want to download the soundtrack for your non-gaming listening pleasure, try this link.

These three are the mods I have installed on my current game. All three are compatible with each other. Not all mods will be cross compatible so be sure to check and save backups of desired configurations. You can download these and other mods from here.

This is one you may want to start on easy. With a variety of different skills and tactics, this is one you’ll be playing for another 13 years (now if you’ll excuse me…)

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