Monday, June 14, 2010

Quick Late Review: Bioshock 2

(I'm going away on vacation, so I wanted to dump everything in my brain while it's still there. I have to stop writing games sometimes. Working on Avadon is making my brain melt.)

Looking at video games from an artistic viewpoint, Bioshock 2 might be the most unnecessary game ever made. Bioshock was an incredibly satisfying self-contained experience, and there's just no way to have a sequel make sense. How long can a city at the bottom of the ocean be run exclusively by insane, drug-addicted zombies before a poorly maintained pipe breaks and the whole place floods?

And yet, I can totally understand why Bioshock 2 exists. Someone said, "Hey! There's a really cool shooter at the core of Bioshock, and people would probably like to play more of it. Also, we like money."

So my review of Bioshock 2 is this: You can get the magical ability to make swarms of bees, and they fly around killing your enemies, and when they kill someone the body is infected with bees, and when a different enemy gets close to the corpse it explodes and makes more bees.

How can you not want to play that game?

Also, early on, you can get the ability to freeze the enemy you're fighting. Once you have it, all boss fights become completely trivial for the rest of the game. Once, when I was younger, I would have seen this as a flaw. Now I am old and slow and I think games just get too darn hard, so the ability to instantly freeze and obliterate everyone is awesome. In my fantasy world, I don't want to be a loser who is incapable of ever succeeding.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Quick Late Review: Mass Effect 2.

(I'm going away on vacation, so I wanted to dump everything in my brain while it's still there. I have to stop writing games sometimes. Working on Avadon is making my brain melt.)

I played Mass Effect 2, of course. Bioware. Have to play. And I really, really liked Mass Effect, warts and all.

Mass Effect 2 is a lot of fun. The new action-based combat model is simple and fast-paced, so the action, while a little repetitive, is always fun. And the game conclusively shows that there is no problem that can't be solved by going from one end of a corridor full of crates to the other. The player characters are a little dull for a Bioware game, but they're fine. (Morden and Garrus are cool.) I suspect that there's just too many of them, so the interestingness got spread a little thin. I missed Morrigan.

But, as much as I enjoyed it, there was one thing that really bugged me. Bioware has said that Mass Effect 3 will be a bit lighter in the subject matter, and thank God.

So there's a woman in your party named Subject Zero. She is harsh and obnoxious and crazy and I wished I could throw her out of the airlock while covered in hurting fire. Like all of the other allies, there's an quest you can do to win her loyalty.

So I accept it, and we go to this abandoned research base. It turns out, Subject Zero was, while a child, subjected to horrible experiments to give her psychic powers. You learn, in blucky detail, how many other children were taken there and killed in other experiments that seem deliberately reminiscent of the work of Josef Mengele.

You also learn that this base was built by Cerberus, a pro-human organization that you work for.

You do learn, for what it's worth, that after Cerberus built the base they went a little rogue before all of the child-murdering started. As if that makes it better. Which, no. When you find out that your bosses helped start the Holocaust, it doesn't matter if they're a little bugged by what happened later. It's still, you know, bad.

I had a lot of fun playing the game. The zappy zappy was good. But that quest really put a bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the game, and this isn't like God of War, where the story is only a vague backdrop for the hacking. Bioware is known for story, and they took a seriously wrong step here. If you want to cover this sort of material, fine. But treat it with respect, don't just make it a little side quest meant to make things all edgy, and certainly don't expect the player to continue to support the organization that created the horrors in the first place. As someone who sometimes takes games seriously as an art form, it's embarrassing.

Also, if you are forced to have these yahoos on your ship, "helping you", asking for favors, and bugging you with their issues, you should always have the option of feeding them into the mass-energy reactor. Hey, your ship has to be fueled somehow.

(And hey, Bioware, still love you, right? Let's not let this little tiff interfere with our deep and lasting relationship, OK?)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Avadon Developer Diary #1 - Where Ideas Come From.

Last week, after six months of hard work, we were finally able to announce Avadon: The Black Fortress to the world. Avadon is our next, all-new, Indie fantasy role-playing game. And, hopefully, trilogy. We're really excited about it. It's the first time in quite a while that we're doing something really new, and these monthly development diaries will say a bit about the new series and the ups and downs of making it.

So, for the first post, I wanted to write about where the idea came from. I am often asked where I get my ideas. So, if you ever wondered, here is one answer.

The First Idea

About three years ago, I saw that the Avernum and Geneforge series were drawing to a close, and I needed to come up with something new. This was, of course, both exciting and terrifying. Coming up with an idea that will determine the course of years of your life (and possibly put you out of business) is a stressful process.

About this time, my wife and I went to see a Hungarian one-act opera called Bluebeard's Castle. I am normally not a fan of opera. Exactly the opposite, in fact. But some friends had cheap tickets, and we had babysitting, so, you know, whatever.

And what was it like? Well, I will quote Wikipedia.

"The basic plot is loosely based on the folk tale of Bluebeard, but is given a heavily psychological reworking—some would say psychoanalytic or psychosexual"

So you know it was a totally fun time. As far as I'm concerned, an evening out is a failure if it doesn't involve the word "psychosexual."

Anyway. The opera is about Bluebeard, this incredibly scary guy who lives in this huge, dark castle. He brings home his new, young, pretty wife and is showing her around. His castle has seven doors, and he unlocks and opens them for her one after the other. Each door looks out onto some cool room or vista. Some open onto treasures. Others onto subterranean realms. Or far-away lands. (So this is already sounding like a Paper Mario game.) When each door is opened, they sing about it. At length.

So then they get to the last door. Bluebeard refuses to open it. His wife begs for him to. He refuses. This goes on for a while. Finally, Bluebeard gives in and opens the door. Bluebeard's other wives (!) walk out silently. They take his new wife and pull her through the door, which closes behind them. Bluebeard sings about how sad he is. Opera ends. Very psychosexual.

So I'm sitting there watching this, and what I'm thinking is this: Who is this Bluebeard guy? He's very powerful. Very rich. Has a castle full of magic doors. He mentions how he has great influence with the court. What's his deal? Where did all that wealth come from? What does he use those portals for? What is his day job?

And here was my idea. He's a warrior. Or an assassin. Or a spy. He can go wherever the king wants, and do whatever needs doing. Something needs to be found out? Some rebel needs to die? That's what Bluebeard does, and he is well paid for it.

Turning a Glimmer Into a Game

These ideas bounce around in my head for a few years, getting massaged into a more video-game-friendly form. And that brings us to Avadon.

In Avadon, the land of Lynauus is split in two. There is the Pact, an uneasy alliance of five nations, banded together for safety. On the other side is the Farlands, the enemies of the Pact, barbarians and monsters and old, crumbling Empires, kept weak and divided. But they long to get their revenge on the Pact. To put together armies and destroy these upstarts.

And the Pact is protected by Avadon. Avadon is a fortress in the wilds, a law unto itself, separate from the government. Its warriors are tasked to find problems when they are small and do whatever it takes to remove them. Avadon is ruled by Keeper Redbeard, the smiling, jolly, utterly ruthless master of the Black Fortress. He has been in charge for sixty years, though he doesn't appear to have aged a day.

As the game begins, you have just arrived at Avadon's gates. And you have found that, after decades of steely, unbroken control, things are going terribly wrong. Redbeard wants to see you. He needs a pair of fresh eyes, and it is a bad idea to disappoint him.

And that is where the new series came from. Over the next few months, I will say more about the world and the gameplay itself.