Monday, December 20, 2010

Story depth, sexism and equality

"Jeanne, next time just keep the long hair, ask nicely for that breastplate and bring your girlfriend too."

(Edit 21. Dec.: to avoid any confusion, the blog entries and comments I quoted have now disappeared)

Ah, reality check today. This is going to be long again. A few days ago I linked you people to Alazander's community check during my long Obsidian rant. Who would've thought it'd stir up the trouble it did? I don't ask you to read it all, instead I'll quote a few passages that lead to the argument. It raises some interesting thoughts really.

"I see 300+ page threads dedicated to an upcoming companion's chest hair, and I wonder if the earnest D&D or RPG enthusiasts of the past are now huddling in a corner staring in slack-jawed terror at the teenage girls who have taken over the establishment."

Aahh... my my, bad mistake. Seriously, in the whole context of that long post I didn't stumble over that one, or let's better say, I got the bigger meaning without assuming he's actually blaming girls for the downfall of all roleplaying communities. It was a cynical remark, irrelevant. Let's hop into the comments section now...

"But I'm sorry - the problem with the RPG community today is that teenage girls have "taken over"? Are you serious?"

Other points made in that comment are totally valid, it was just that I hadn't read the same into the post as this person did... moving on in the comments it's getting too much to quote really, people got really upset about this one line and that Alazandar called The Witcher's gritty setting "refreshing" compared to Bioware's "we cater everyone" policy.

"I always like to use The Witcher as a good example of game that sails close to the edge to present a believable world, at the risk of offending or alienating significant groups of people. Not that I think that is a good thing in general, but it’s a breath of fresh occasionally."

That was apparently just feeding the fire and even took it over to other blogs with statements like...

"I think I’m most amused/bewildered by the claim that political correctness is so rampant that games with sexist/oppressive settings and content are a “breath of fresh air”. Like tossca said, I… really don’t know where to start. :/"

"I think statements about how misogyny or other sorts of oppressiveness are “a breath of fresh air” are a bit indicative of what the person in question thinks the world should be like.
Which is clearly indicative that nobody should take them seriously, because that’s really self centered thinking and yeah. Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t seem to have caught on."

"His breath of fresh air stinks for everyone else."

Now, short break here, to get that part out of the way. Up to the point where the first person argued about the truth behind the "teenage girl" statement I can agree that the words weren't exactly well chosen. The "girls part" was meaningless to me, I think those of us who stare in awe at the Bioware Social Community all get the bigger meaning... those boards appear like a chatroom with so much babbling about nonsense like, cough... chest hair... that one's getting close to a seizure. I was following the boards when Dragon Age was new and yes, they changed faster than lines in a chatroom, with the most frequented topics being about character look and who's the cutest bunny and that.

It's not important if it was teenage girls or males who started those, although we all know girls chat faster ;-) (yeah, joke, but call me sexist now if you like). Moving on to the part about male sexism on those boards and teenage males opening dozens of threads about boob size... all valid, sure, teenage males are horrible, teenage girls too, can we move on? The point is that more serious modders feel a bit lost in the kindergarden, not if it's teenage girls or teenage males who started it.

But, since the sexism topic came up now, let's stay there and look at Alazander's new post.

I don't want gaming to become the equivalent of Mass Effect's medi-gel and omni-tools: all-purpose, all-inclusive, homogenized. I refer to the mechanics, yes, but also the stories, the characters, the themes. This is particularly important for RPGs because they form so much of the experience. When one comes along that doesn't knowingly dull its edges to avoid potentially offending someone -- and even BioWare's games do, on occasion -- I'll stand and applaud the artistic integrity instead of screaming blue murder.

Phew... so much for the background... you might've noticed I left a comment there already long enough for a blog post.

Let's make this part short now. Yes, I agree completely with him and I think the Witcher is a great, great game, to a large part for being so different to the homogenized rest. What are we really looking for in a fantasy game? A truly medieval feel or rather a game that caters everyone at the same level? If the latter, how many opportunities for a great story are really there and how many lost? A matter of taste maybe?

So, if I want to make a commercially successful Middleforest, I'll make sure that the world feels all the same to men, women, lesbians, gays, probably a few more. Yes, that's the Bioware recipe. Modern canadian liberal political correctness, as Alazandar called it. May I add.... boring?

Yes, I think Bioware games get more boring lately. I still enjoyed Mass Effect 2, but I don't feel the urge to play it again.
Dragon Age was great, and I especially loved it for the origins, but it dulls out a bit after those.

Let's not forget by the way that DA:O was years in development, they started long before being bought up by EA. Now, the latest developments though don't really spike my interest anymore. I don't care much for Mass Effect 3, and for sure not for Dragon Age 2 which appears to be just a medieval Mass Effect. And may I add that I have my doubts that these games can be really deep and epic anymore with only one year of development and always following the same successful recipe?

No, a game I want to make would be closer to the Witcher's world than to Bioware's standards now.
Do you read into that that I want to make a world in that only heterosexual male players are catered, that female players, or homosexuals or whatever fun you have in your life, characters are not welcome? No, dammit, they should be strong in numbers! But please, don't expect the same treatment. Why? Because it's absolutely unrealistic, it's boring, it ignores so many opportunities for great stories.

Even Bioware was still doing it at one point - play the female City Elf origin in Dragon Age: Origins.
Sadly, they didn't continue this way throughout the game... but even without the gender now... how many people thought it was a brilliant idea that elves or the lower born dwarves are the outcasts, the scum, nothing but slaves in that game and had to fight against all the odds?

Ah yes, as long as it's just a fantasy race, it's a great idea... but telling a story about a woman who has to fight against the odds in a realistic sexist and gritty world is no good idea? Or a gay warrior who has to keep his orientation a secret in a world that would burn him for his sin? That wouldn't make fantastic stories?
Well, just look at literature and real history. Who'd give a damn f*uck what Jeanne d'Arc has done if every second soldier/knight in the army had been a woman during that time? She'd surely not be holy by now, she'd be forgotten.
Would Mary Read and Anne Bonnie still be remembered? What for? There were more successful pirates at the time, they had no males to fight against, and since female sailors/pirates who dress like males and have a same gender affair are considered utterly normal and plain boring...

"Just a snapshot of some average girls in their day job, nothing to see here.

In my comment I took "The Pillars Of The Earth" as an example. Did this book cause an uprise among female readers (who apparently bought it) for treating women not politically correct? The women in this book are usually treated like scum, most of them raped at least once, and yet they are the most memorable characters... because they fight against all odds.

The Witcher created a world that is not even that gritty, but surely closer to medieval society than Bioware's games are. And yet, most players still remember most of the female NPCs clearly because they stood out. And not for their boobs. It's just been three months since I played Mass Effect 2, I barely remember the storyline or the characters anymore. Sure I remember Liara-cutiepie still, but honestly, isn't she just a sweet little modern teenager with not much depht at all? I wasn't really impressed by any of those characters, and if there's anything I remember of that Miranda Lawson in Mass Effect 2, it's surely her rearside and a suit so detailed that I'd call it more sexist than the whole tarot card collection in The Witcher.

"Miranda Lawson (Mass Effect 2) - modelling that gap between her legs was surely a necessity. Honi soit qui mal y pense."

Triss Merigold though, I surely remember her from the Witcher, and I'm sure her character would eat any of the Mass Effect chicks for breakfast.

Last, because I'm only rambling again and will probably edit every 2nd sentence later for making sure I'm not misunderstood - Michael has posted a great blog entry a (long) while ago, he's a much better writer and much smarter than me anyway. Make sure to read all of it, not just this little quote that should conclude this post.

"We can't solve the ills of society in a little blog post. But, by extension, neither can we solve them in a game. And really, should we? If conflict is the center of storytelling, isn't the base conflict of woman versus the limitations of society compelling? I've seen character backstories by the truckload that deal with a woman being driven to a life of adventure to escape the chains of an arranged marriage, and nine times out of ten, the conflict stops there. Women in fantasy, it seems, are only chained by society at some distant point in the past. They make a decision to not be the puppets of men and then everything is roses from there. Surely, fantasy is a wondrous thing!


Being a woman in S&S takes strength. Being a woman and an adventurer, doubly so. The conflict that births that strength should be played up, not down; such resolve in the face of injustice is the thing people tell stories about long after things have changed... if they ever do."

Saturday, December 18, 2010

There are no words...

.. to describe all the feelings this message causes in me.
Seriously... I want to go on a killing spree, I want to break stuff, I want to...
What the hell do you want from me, autodownloader?
Yes, I admit I've been a bad bad Casa and decided to clean up my Middleforest module. That means, I exported all areas, made a new module by the same name, with all the scripts and blueprints and stuff, reimported everything, used the exact same module properties, used the exact same settings for the autodownloader, assigned the exact same servers, assigned the exact same files to them... WHAT THE FUCK?!

Seriously, I hate hate hate hate hate this thing. It cost me 4 hours so far, all the settings are the same as in the old module and all the files it wants sit on the server just waiting to be used.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Rant day: Obsidian, Fallout, Communities, Influences

It's time for some long ramblings again, please forgive me. I should make some general games blog someday, but there are too many of those already. However, this is sort of NWN2 related again, and also very much to my Middleforest, because believe it or not, I'm getting a lot of influences and ideas from other games, even if they seem to have nothing in common with NWN2 or medieval fantasy.
Like, say, Fallout.
Well actually, Fallout has a few things in common with NWN2, first off it's a Roleplaying Game and last but not least the developers.
And that's reason number two for my rambling today, Obsidian. The first one would be talking about the game itself, and the last reason is a post by fellow blogger Alazander over here.

Now, how do I get all this together? So, Obsidian, where do I start?

Over in the Dammendrech chat, they're usually called Obtusian or Obsidiot and whenever something goes wrong on the server, the first line is "It's an Obsidiot game, what do you expect?" and they are generally called incompetent. Well, there's so much truth in that, but the point is, Obsidian is actually a likeable little studio with a lot of potential and a lot of flaws and bad luck. And Fallout New Vegas is an ideal example for this.

Let's first look at Obsidian's game list, maybe over at the Wikipedia because that's my bridge.
That list isn't long and as we all know, mostly sequels. What had all these sequels in common? They were kind of... lacking. What were they lacking? I'll come to that.

The other thing we see is that Obsidian was founded by and employs people who made some legendary games, last but not least the original two Fallout parts (Black Isle/Interplay), Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale, Baldur's Gate together with Bioware etc. Also not to forget members of Troika with now legendary flops like Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines or Arcanum. Today all veteran roleplayers still start drooling over these names.

So... what the hell is wrong with Obsidian? They always seem to make "okay" sequels that are said to be less good than the first part, and they are legendary for their game bugs.

But let's be fair and objective for a moment, because I'm getting a bit tired of all the Obsidian bashing. Their games have some serious flaws, but also a lot of strenghts, and with Fallout New Vegas I've found the best example. It shows both sides very well, and the comparison with Bethesda's original Fallout 3 works incredibly well. Because this time, fortunately, Obsidian didn't try to reinvent the wheel on the engine side like in NWN2.
That earned them some bad reviews and "outdated" remarks, but actually, I guess it saved their arses. At least they couldn't mess it up completely. Because yes, it's true, they aren't good at making a smooth engine, not at all.
But the main thing they aren't good at is another, and I think this is what earned them their reputation. It's not the programming, but the Art. I think Obsidian is made of geeks, geeks of the sort like the old veteran roleplayers who claim at some game forum that they don't care for anything else than the text in the game. They still enjoy their text-based RPG from the late eighties and don't need visuals at all. Unfortunately, they have to go with the times, try and... fail.

But now, let's get to Fallout 3 and New Vegas. First off, they are both very high in my favorite games list, but one's the clear winner.
All you need to know about the difference between the two games is the two opening scenes which were also used for trailers. They tell almost everything. So, lean back and start with Bethesda's.

And here comes Obsidian's:

Okay, do I really have to explain it or is it obvious? Does nobody else have this "Meh" feeling after the New Vegas one? They use the exact same game engine and tools, but... is it just me, or does Obidian simply have no clue how to do arts? Atmosphere?
Bethesda's is spot on with the atmosphere, it's rich in detail and sets the dark, gloomy mood for the game. And the music by the Ink Spots was the best marketing move anyway, although I hear kids hate it.

Obsidian though, you just get the idea they try to compete... but they can't. And they fail miserably. The very first seconds are okay, but then the camera moves to the New Vegas Strip and poof... immersion gone. There's no detail, nothing... a perfectly clean, plastic Strip that cries out "I'm rendered!", then comes that soldier guy who's there for the same reason as the one in Bethesda's: "I need to look totally badass so the kids buy the game". Nice try, he's okay, but after all that plastic look of the Strip he can't save anything anymore. Only nice touch: The headshot. It's sort of funny, and that actually is the point where they did something right. But then... I just have to post a pic...

That's the point where they probably lost the young ones completely. Are we watching Toy Story (1)? Obsidian, please.. before you do something like that, don't do any cinematics! You scare off the whole gamer crowd who buy graphics cards beyond $70... it's not that it's not high end, it's that... it's just bad! And let's remind ourselves this is a pre-rendered scene, not ingame graphics... the point is, ingame the characters look actually more realistic than that. Let's move on...

Do I have to say more? This area up there... how can you use it for the intro that is supposed to get players into the mood, how can you use this camera angle, how can you NOT throw some Photoshop filters over it or just use artwork... seriously, I'm not saying that Obsidian should use high end graphics, not at all, that's not the point... it's just that you can get better and more immersive screens in a 10 year old game. And really, it's not nitpicking on one pic here, it's the whole trailer, isn't it?

Lastly, let's take a quick look at Obsidian's recent first own development, Alpha Protocol. As everyone who's a bit interested in games or in Obsidian's doings outside NWN2 should know, this game flopped. Badly. And that was my first impression right from the first screenshot I saw... that it will flop badly.
Ingame graphics are not everything, I agree, and a good game surely doesn't need high end graphics. But there's a certain point at which the bad art design actively ruins the game... the story suggests a serious moment, but the graphics are so unintentionally comical that you actually have to laugh about it.

As an example for small mood-killers you might have seen too... Dragon Age, romance scene... it was supposed to be a really romantic moment, and the game is so well written you were really in the mood. Then they start this "sex" cutscene in those ridiculous undies with rather weird animations and I actually snorted my coffee over the table. Now, in Dragon Age's case it couldn't ruin the game, it was just a bit funny.

The problem with Obsidian's games is, they are worse. And according to all reviews I've seen about Alpha protocol, I think that was what ruined the game completely - the bad marketing surely didn't help too, nothing from the ads to the game box was in any way atractive. All of the reviews said the story's quite great and the game is surely worth playing... if you can ignore the horribly outdated graphics and the comical animations. Most said that some combat animations were unbearable. Reminds you of another game? Maybe NWN2? Let's look at the Alpha Protocol trailer for completition, there's some ingame scenes at the end that don't look totally unbearable, but by no means unique either.

Now... would you say this trailer gets anyone into the stores? Even to a torrent site?
To tell you the truth I was almost praying for Obsidian that this game wouldn't flop, that there would be people less picky than me who'd buy, play and enjoy it. Didn't happen. I was even expecting Alpha Protocol to be the nail in Obsidian's coffin. Glad that didn't happen though, not yet... maybe New Vegas saved them... but who knows how much of the cake will actually be left for Obsidian, given the first big name on the box is still Bethesda.

Now, enough of that, onwards to New Vegas. Maybe I'm an oracle or something, but my gut feeling has yet again not failed me. I like my guts, they always tell me the truth, and they did about this too.

Because, surprise, I totally loved the game. Obsidian failed to ruin it, quite the opposite, they made it a small masterpiece and definitely better than Bethesda's Fallout 3. And that was the first feeling I had when I heard they'd develop it. Why?

  1. They have an engine ready and can't screw up by making a new one, so that's out of the way.
  2. They don't try to change the graphics, pheeeew.

Game magazines gave them worse reviews for keeping the old engine, and yes, on metacritics Fallout 3 scores better than the successor. But hell, well done Obsidian, keep your hands off things you don't understand and work on your strong side. That's the writing. And hands on, on the storytelling side, Bethesda cannot compete.

Fallout 3's wasteland was a great place to explore with so much atmosphere and detail and stuff to do that it outshone the big failure it was on the story side. It had stories and quests, sure... but my, most of them were really lacking. They were short, didn't have much detail, many of them were not much better than your usual Fed-Ex quests.
The main storyline was linear and could be completed in a rush, it offered, wait... one or two choices at the end, and your general influence on the world was quite black & white.. either you do the good thing and earn something good for it, or you do some bad thing and be a bad person.


Now, my personal Fallout 3 trauma is this person, she's called Clover:

Clover was my favourite companion in Fallout 3, and I hate travelling alone. Not because they add to the firepower, just because I like company. I loved the dog too, but the dog didn't speak, so I ran my Karma all the way down to being horribly evil just to get this "crazy slave girl (ingame advertisment)" as a companion. I mean, who wants to travel with a Paladin in heavy armor, please...

Now, the actual trauma is, I could've sticked with the dog.

Miss Clover here could've been a really rich person... she's a little masochistic, very sadistic and was the private slave of the big badass slave trader in the game, one of two girls (Crimson & Clover, haha). She could've had stories to tell you can't imagine, or just doing random fun stuff that actually fit her "crazy" reputation.

She doesn't. She has exactly three one-liners as voice-overs and the same amount of dialogue options to adjust her companion AI. She's a robot. A dog.
Actually, the dog barked more than she had to say. And don't think it was just her, no... all companions in Fallout 3 are that "rich". They are.. aimbots? Meatshields for lazy players? Something like that. It was just sad, but it's one major point of Fallout 3: Even though being a RPG, it's clearly aimed at the shooter crowd a little too much.

What I was hoping for when New Vegas was announced was that Obsidian did exactly that: Leave the working base alone and work on those parts Bethesda failed in. And Obsidian delivered.

Here's one of my favourite companions in New Vegas, Veronica. Veronica is extremely nice and a little bit silly, babbles a lot, even unasked. She has a long background story including a girlfriend (another companion is gay, in both cases you learn it just from a side remark they throw at some time and nothing else follows, which just adds to the realism of the fleshed-out backgrounds). She has her own long questline just like all of the eight companions you can choose from, and was generally a pleasure to have around. She wasn't Clover though, but still, she was fine.

The companion example is just the most obvious one, but Obsidian really played out all their writing strenghts in New Vegas. As for the setting, the Mojave desert, it's not as detailed graphics-wise (surprise!) and hasn't as many "Oooh" effects as Fallout 3, another thing some reviews mentioned, but it's certainly not ugly and still has a lot of surprises.

You really just have to force yourself over the badly done intro and the first hour or two, and suddenly, with the first sidequests, you notice how rich the world is, and how incredibly well the writing is done. Main storyline? Ah, forget it, the sidequests are rich ones. There are some that are just told in a few computer logs and scattered pages, and yet some players put up movies of them on youtube and go on about how great they are.

Some places tell the sad stories just with a room and scattered placeables, you walk in and imagine the big story behind it. But not to forget NPC dialogues... even the small sidequests are often told like a main quest in any other game, characters you meet all have a unique personality and feel truly alive. And last but not least, there's one thing only Obsidian could do: Bring the humor from the original Fallout series back into the game.

That's not to say Fallout 3 didn't have any humor, there were some funny parts in it too, but most of it was actually in the area design, not in what you actually experienced.

New Vegas though does it spot-on, and I can even see Obsidian's writers leaning back with a huge grin thinking "see kids, that's how it's done". There were many parts that were incredibly funny, but yet again told in a way you take the whole story still serious. Fallout 3 had cynism too, but it was too gloomy, too serious. New Vegas is more lighthearted and yet more immersive and realistic as well, never silly.

That's one thing the trailer actually transported well, the one point. Both have the martial looking guy in armor, made to attract the shooter kiddies I guess. But Bethesda's trailer is just gloomy, while, well... the headshot in Obsidian's is sort of funny, and everything is a bit more colorful, and I assume it's meant to be.

Both games have the same violence level and animations, but in Fallout 3 it feels worse because the game feels too serious. In New Vegas there's always that slight hint of humor and being over the top on purpose. Fallout 3 takes itself damn serious, New Vegas doesn't.

I could go on and on about how much Obsidian improved things here, like the unforeseeable consequences of your doings that are at least on par with The Witcher, and in this case it outshines all the negative parts. A few hours in the game and the miserable trailer is forgotten. The area design is not on par with Bethesda's, but since they mostly use the same stuff, it's not bad at all, and lastly, it's different enough to clearly set the game apart from it's predecessor. Where Obsidian tried to retexture things (like, new outfits), it actually is bad, mostly. Not bad enough to ruin it this time though, and there are already mods out that fix these things.

Fallout 3 needed armies of super mutants to scare you, in New Vegas you should better be scared of these little buggers or giant insects...

Now, as for the Obsidian part, here's some sort of conclusion.

Obsidian needs a big brother. Like Bethesda, Bioware, whatever.

Or they really really have to work on their Art and Programming department, although, I think art is the real problem. Yes, Obsidian's games are buggy, but hands on, Fallout 3 was and still is a bug-ridden crashy beast too, I'd call it much less stable than NWN2... just that it runs smoother as long as it actually runs is a major advantage.

New Vegas is of course buggy as hell too... but really, most games are. I played Stalker, I tried to get others to run that failed completely, Obsidian's games are certainly not as clean out of the box as Bioware's latest, but they are not the worst I've ever seen. What they really really need is atmosphere, players are much more forgiving if the crashing game looks immersive and well designed... see Fallout 3, it crashes like crazy but people are forgiving because they're soaked in.

Now, the big news of the weekend was Bethesda's announcement of The Elder Scrolls 5, ask Ben.
While I'm not that much interested in it really (never got warm with Oblivion, even though I tried multiple times), it means one other thing - Bethesda will probably not work on Fallout 4 for a long time, even though it's an extremely successful license.
Now, but since Obsidian already made a successful New Vegas, and Bethesda has a new engine ready for TES: V... one can dream, no?
In fact, I think it wouldn't be a bad thing if Bethesda and Obsidian would cooperate for a much longer time, and if Obsidian's in trouble as a studio, why not even buy them up? A fusion would be good for both sides, together they could do awesome things. Wouldn't surprise me at all if that happened.

Last. I mentioned Alazander's Blog entry above, and I'll get back to that now before I fall from my chair after this monstrous post. The different communities and why we should stick with NWN2. After exploring also the Bethesda modding sites, I think that fits in here well.

Agreed, on everything. NWN1/2 is a special case in this whole modding community pool, and even if we forget about multiplayer, I don't see any alternatives. Even more, I think NWN2 has matured a lot and it's a great base for everything.
Seriously folks, and I mean you, NWN1 veterans, you dropped off way too soon and never really gave the game a chance after the second patch didn't fix everything. Give it a go again... the game is a very good and stable base, it has remaining bugs, but hell, NWN1 has too.

The overcomplicated toolet is actually easy to use once you get the hang of it - I tried The Witcher's Djinni, Fallout 3's Gecko and Dragon Age's toolset so far and everytime I ran back to NWN2 quickly. For multiplayer, I don't expect any alternative anymore. In the long future.
Atari is in the middle of a lawsuit over DnD, so forget it, and all the others will never give us Co-op and PWs for free. The future of commercial online games is only in MMOs with micropayments, I don't expect anyone to throw us a bone anymore.

I wish people hadn't given up on NWN2 so fast, it offers the same modability as NWN1 and much more freedom in design, and now, 4 years later, everyone should be able to play it fine on lower end hardware.

And there's the communities Alazander talked so much about... there's none comparable to NWN's. What he says about Dragon Age is what I also see over at the Fallout and Oblivion modding sites. Take my complaints about Clover up there... I bet if NWN had had such bad companions, it would've taken a few months and someone would've put up a mod that adds dialogue to them. At the Fallout Nexus you will find mods that make them better in fights or turn them into japanese lolitas, but anything that adds immersion and story? Forget it. Don't get me wrong, there are some great and good mods for all these games, but they are all weapon stuff, technical, retextures... an immersive, playable module? Same thing as Dragon Age. Technically possible, nobody bothers. They want some ultra sharp textures, naked Anime companions and a cool machine gun (I'm not opposed to good technical mods nor some nude skins *cough*, but really... anything else?).

Anyway, in case you wait for the next big thing to come, better stop... everything after NWN2 failed to deliver so far, so why not look at this little diamond in the rough again?
And if you ever had the same impression as me - NWN2 looks just ugly... that's Obsidian's area design, they have the tools, they can't use them. But you can.