Tag Archives: Video Games

WASD – War Ain’t So Delightful

Apologies for the use of the word “ain’t” in the title. For those of you for whom this is a deal-breaker, I understand.

The American Red Cross is working with video game designers to incorporate the Geneva conventions into their games. In the latest¬†Call of Duty if you go to third floor of the bombed out hospital you’ll find a copy in the administrator’s locked desk, though you’ll need a grenade to open it, which unfortunately destroys both desk and the conventions.

Just kidding ūüôā

But the first part’s very real. For right now the actions are very simple, if you start shooting at civilians, your own men might start shooting at you, or you might lose credit for a mission if you torture a prisoner, etc.

This got me to thinking less about video game violence, which is a topic discussed ad nauseam, and more about video game ethics.

I think there are three kinds of ethical situations in video games:

1) I have to do this bad thing to advance the game. (i.e. Grand Theft Auto)

2) I can do this bad thing, but it might have consequences for me later. (i.e. The Witcher)

3) I can do anything I want with no consequences. (i.e. Postal)

Here’s a simple example of number 3. This last weekend I basically spent something like 12-15 hours casually playing Avadon: The Black Fortress, a Spiderweb software RPG where you control a party of adventurers in an isometric landscape and fight monsters and giant spiders and the like. There are lots of hidden objects in chests, closets or out in the open, some of which are marked “NY”. No, that’s not “made in New York”, but rather “not yours”. Meaning you probably shouldn’t take it, or at least not while the owner is looking.¬†But if you have the opportunity to steal, you can, and with few consequences (except apparently one shopkeeper who refuses to deal with you if you steal their merchandise but I have yet to encounter this).


Now on the one hand taking these objects really can make the game go smoother. And the ones you don’t really need, can be sold for coins which are hard to amass otherwise. But, stealing is wrong, and this game basically encourages it to advance (something that apparently differs from their earlier titles).

How should we feel about this? Should Spiderweb change their game to put back consequences for stealing (turning it into an example of scenario number 2), or just remove the “NY” label altogether to alleviate our guilt?

Let’s look at another example,¬†The Witcher.¬†The Witcher has some very sophisticated moral choices, and some shades of gray. Alliances are formed, enemies made, based on your choices.

And, it also includes a lot of dialogue trees that if successful allow you to bed more than a dozen beautiful women, and collect playing cards of your various sexual encounters.

Here’s one of the tamer ones:

Playing Card Triss

So there are consequences to your actions, just not any that prevent you from sleeping with as many as 24 women. Yeah, I know it’s faithful to the source material for this game, and it’s also a bit prurient (or deviant in some cases depending on how you feel about semi-demonic women) so let’s not kid ourselves. But I hear it’s got nothing on¬†Game of Thrones.


A better example of both scenario’s 1 +2 is Fahrenheit (otherwise known as Indigo Prophecy). In this game you are trying to evade the police because you’ve been framed for a murder you didn’t commit. Well, kinda. Actually you did commit it, but you were possessed by some kind of demon. And you’re also playing the cops trying to find you, while at the same time hiding evidence.

Indigo Prophecy 4

The game is fraught with consequences. Your character has a general mood which increases or decreases based on your success in the game. Let this mood get too low, and they might commit suicide, or quit their job, go on a bender, etc. Here’s a scenario from early on in the game, you’re in a park. It’s winter and a boy has just fallen through a hole in the ice. He’s trapped and is going to freeze and/or drown if you don’t help. But, there are cops not too far away (not close enough to save the boy, but close enough to spot you when you drag him out of the water). If you leave the boy you end up feeling terrible, if you save him you risk getting caught. What do you do?

There are points in this game where you have to do the wrong thing. You have to hide the body, destroy evidence, etc. But there are a myriad of others where it’s not clear what you should do, and the consequences play out over hours, not seconds of gameplay.

I guess that’s the point I’m meandering towards, life does have some instant consequences for bad actions, but more often than not their impact is felt over a long period of time. Or not at all. Like any form of media, video games can explore these dynamics, and the best ones do. There will probably always be parts of games we don’t like, or that we think aren’t very moral, but games can also make us think, and play out different scenarios and see where they go.

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Present Tech

One of the problems with setting a technology driven story in the present is that technology changes. Not only do the gadgets change, but we change as well. How then, does a writer keep a technology driven story current, given that writing a book can take years?

The more things change the more they stay the same:

I bought my first USB flash drive when I was a freshmen in college. It cost $40 and was 128 megabytes. Today, for only $30 I can buy a flash drive that is 512 times bigger. But despite improvements in utility and storage capacity these two drives are essentially the same device. The keyboard and mouse have been around since time immemorial, the CD since the early 80s. If you avoid specifics like cost, capacity or brands then your tech will stay fresher longer. (Who knows if the Kindle will even be a thing in ten years but I bet there’ll be eReaders of one stripe or another!)

Technology exists long before we own it:

I bought my first laptop after college. I still don’t own a smart phone or an iPad (though I have a cheap Android tablet). Chromecast looks neat , but I’m not planning on buying a compatible TV until mine breaks. Even in my work at [an engineering firm], smart phone adoption is neither essential nor universal. If your character is a hacker, then they need the latest tech, but if your story takes place on social media, the ways in which we interact with that world are many and diverse. I’m on Facebook on my ten year old desktop, or my new tablet. Lots of you use your phone. Most of us don’t have the money to buy the latest tech until after our old tech breaks, but that doesn’t mean we can’t adopt new technology trends.

Don’t be afraid to invent technology in the present:

The pace of technology is fast, and what seems like fiction today, is fact at lunchtime. If you can dream it up, chances are that technology could exist within ten years. And even if it isn’t commercial, there are always technology wizards and geniuses cooking up neat devices long before their time.

Write a period piece:

If you’re writing in a particular moment in time, don’t try to make it look like the present day. Add historical details if your story takes place in, for example, the waning years of the Bush era. Or how about the early 2000s, before social media exploded, or before the mid 90s when cell phones started to be more prevalent. Chances are your readers will still remember that moment and it will give them a chance to reflect on how life has changed in such a short time. A story about 1997 written in 2013 may be more durable than a story written in 1997 about the present day.

Remember all good stories are character driven:

Though your story may be technology driven in terms of plot, what drives story, what keeps our interest, is always characters. Science fiction may at times be able to get away with writing about some future technology that may one day have an impact on our lives without the need for fully realized characters, but your story won’t. Technology may set the stage, but it’s your characters that make a story worth reading.

How about you? Do you use technology in your stories about the present?

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Goodbye LucasArts

In light of the tragic death of LucasArts yesterday at the hands of Disney, I thought I’d let a few of my friends give their reactions:






NoMinnieHave a great weekend everybody!


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The act of creating dangerously

How much are we willing to sacrifice for our creative endeavors?

This is one of the central questions in a documentary about independant game developers, Indie Game: The Movie. The movie follows three teams in various stages of production, from pushing to the finish line, to not being sure how to react once you get there.

I was interested in this movie not only because I was familiar with several of the games covered (Braid, Super Meat Boy and Fez), but as a programmer and `creative type`. All of the teams in this movie were staking their financial, professional and personal futures on their game (the developer of Fez said he`d commit suicide if his game was a flop). All were spending long hours, sacrificing food, sleep, time with loved ones or even hope of a social life, all to do something great.

It`s a romantic notion in a way, giving yourself fully to art. I`ve always believed in a more moderated approach, with a day job and attempts to have a real life, a real marriage. It is not a small thing though to ask a spouse to sacrifice time together for the sake of a nights programming or writing. It`s certainly something that has to be at the core of the relationship from the beginning, as it was for one of the Team Meat developers. But even in that case there are often questions as to whether it was worth it, whether it would be better to walk away or whether you are in too deep to quit now.

It`s important to face these questions head on rather than let them sneak up on you. But often the work of just doing a thing gives us little time for reflection. That`s one of the reasons I appreciate the forum of this blog. It gives me a chance to sit quietly in a coffee shop and talk to good friends about this thing we`re all trying to do.

Also at the center of this movie is the question of how to react if something you create is loved for the wrong reason. I think we all want to be like the married Team Meat programmer who can just watch TV on release day ignoring stats and comments. But at heart we`re obsessives, wanting to know how something is doing, wanting to know if people get it, and maybe trying to explain ourselves if we think they don`t. Should we explain ourselves, with social media we can, but we also risk being chided as being pretentious. Creative works are democratic, people can enjoy them however they like, but it can be hard if someone appreciates your work ironically rather than for what you wanted to say.

Indie Game: The Movie not only gives us a picture into how our favorite things are made, but challenges those in creative fields as to what they really might be getting into. We all have to think about it sometime, but happily for many of us it is still worth it.

Indie Game: The Movie is available on Netflix and for one more week as part of Humble Bundle 7. It contains a fair bit of salty language, and some Aqua Teen Hunger Force-esque content, so consider yourself warned. Worth the wade though.

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You Have Been Fangoriously Devoured

Had a lousy cold yesterday and today so not feeling up to a regular post. Thought I’d share with you one of my sick day pleasures, playing vintage Sierra Quest Games (specifically the VGA remake of Space Quest 1). Unlike LucasArts adventure games, Sierra titles punish you for the wrong decision at almost every turn, and serve up dozens of amusing ways for your character to die. I’m sad to say many of these befell my character yesterday (especially “I’m melting” in part two):

See you tomorrow!


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AGFV: The Best and Worst “Forward Thinking” Game Companies

For this month’s installment of AGFV I thought we’d cover the five best and five worst game companies for getting their older games working. Some games have life even after twenty years, and some won’t work on the next or even their own OS.

I considered a lot of factors when compiling this list; continued support, ease of installation, whether emulation is required, 16-bit installers, broadness of graphics cards/methods supported.

The Best:

5: Valve – Say what you will about Steam, Valves’s game distribution platform, it’s a great service for games like Half Life and its ilk. While games on Steam are not gaurunteed to continue running on all new OS’s, the support structure seems to be there for you to invest with confidence. I also have the stand-alone GOTY edition of Half-Life which installs without problems.

4: Interplay – It’s worth noting that Win 95 games are the kiss of death in forward compatibility and Interplay has several that install in compatibility mode WITHOUT patches (Fallout and Freespace). It’s DOS back catalog installs well in DOSBox, and they have many of the best known series (Freespace, Descent, Fallout, The Bard’s Tale). (Notable exceptions: Giants: Citizen Kabuto was buggy to begin with and remains so, and the floppy edition of Star Trek: Judgment Rites will not install without replacing the extracting program)

3: iD/Raven Software – Doom, Quake and Commander Keen are all emulatable in DOSBox or other third-party enhancement projects (Doomsday, Dark Places). The Win95 distro of Doom still installs and runs well on new systems. Most games that are Quake 3 powered run on Win 7 without modification (Elite Force Series for instance).

2: Sierra (DOS-era) – Also known as the “Quest” Era, Sierra’s adventure games work both in DOSBox and ScummVM. Many have been repackaged and sold with automatic DOSBox compatibility so they install and run on Win XP/7 without modification. Some copy protection in their games requires you to download copies of the original manuals, but these are widely available.

1: Blizzard (pre-2003) – It’s worth noting that Starcraft (the original) is still one of the most widely played games in some circles. Warcraft 3 which came out 9 years ago still sells in stores (as does Starcraft). Even older titles like the original Warcraft or Diablo can be installed as is or emulated in DOSBox. Newer tactics toward online registration have changed how their newer games will move forward, but their back catalog is among the easiest to install and get playing.

The Worst:

5: Nintendo – Yeah okay, I know I’m not a console gamer to begin with, but it’s worth noting that you can’t play a Nintendo game from 20 years ago without repurchasing it. All the games listed in the best category can be installed or emulated using original media.

4: Cyan – MYST and Riven specifically. Some editions of MYST were designed for Win 3.1 only and can’t be run even in Win 95. Those that were designed for 95 use old editions of QuickTime. Riven’s five disc edition can be recombined into one (though I haven’t tried it), but even a conventional installation from the 10th anniversary set on Win 7 does not work. CYAN’s secret, new editions. You can buy MYST and Riven on GOG and they install and run just fine. You can even buy MYST on the iPad (but again repurchasing is not the same).

3: Remedy – The sound libraries for Max Payne have to be recompiled to get them to run in Vista/Win7. Even my XP installation did not work quite correctly (I had to hit the Windows button and click back in to get the menu). Maybe a victim of focusing on console versions first.

2: LucasArts – Where do I begin? Maybe with all the crappy Win 9.x Star Wars games. LucasArts installers from this period are 16-bit and have never been updated for 64-bit systems. The graphics cards supported are very narrow and its a crapshoot as to whether a newer system can interpret them (interestingly had a lot better luck with integrated graphics cards than real ones). The GrimE engine has only recently been emulated sufficiently to be playable and even some Scumm titles (Enhanced Monkey Island 1) require more than a basic level of skill to get running.

1: Simon and Schuster Interactive – They make games? Yeah, a lot of crappy Star Trek titles mostly. What’s unfortunate about Simon and Schuster is that many of these products are interesting (the TNG Technical Manual is one of my favorites but can only be run in emulated Win 3.1!). Again these suffer from using strange 3D techniques tested on only a few graphics cards, or using old versions of QuickTime. Even DOS era games have weird copy protection that requires a very specific configuration (otherwise Spock yells at you for piracy). (Notable Exception: DS9 The Fallen based on the Unreal 1.5 engine. Great game even today)

Tried to get any of these games running yourself? Like to see a game guide on some of the tougher ones?

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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.


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.


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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