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    A Short View on “RPGs”

    A Short View on “RPGs”

    It has occurred to me that a quick counterargument on my philosophy that no videogame RPGs deserve the right to be called such is that “well, in all games you play a role, so every videogame is an RPG!”

    In which I would like to respond, if that is the case…

    …then all games are action games, because all games have you perform an action to various degrees.

    …then many games are puzzle games, because many games have puzzles or elements of them, such as the God of War series.

    …then any game that is played from the first person perspective has to be called a first-person something, regardless of any other element.

    …then practically every game ever has to be called a strategy game because every game has you undertake some challenge from a strategic or tactical point of view.

    As such, I would like to affirm that RPGs can be called such just because they stats. Because EVERY game had stats, and not even tabletop RPGs had the honor of coming up with the idea. That would be tabletop wargames such as Chainmail. The one thing that RPGs did have claim to were choices and consequences within a collaborative narrative – and very few video games, RPGs or otherwise, can be said to have as such. Only The Witcher series are the only RPG games that actually have meaningful choice and consequence. Outside of RPGs, the only game that comes to my mind is the original Deus Ex.

    So, I assert my opinion that 99% of “RPGs” should only be called strategy or action games. To call them RPGs would be erroneous.

    November 5, 201323 commentsRead More
    I Fricking Love Wicked Fantasy

    I Fricking Love Wicked Fantasy

    So, once upon a time there was man named John Wick. John was a game designer – primarily, of tabletop roleplaying games. He forayed once into NeoPets, but we don’t talk about that. Anyways, John wrote roleplaying games.

    And he rocked hard at it. The man could weave prose in a way that made you think you were listening to a story told over a warm fire. There was a frank warmness to his words that made you want to listen. He was funny when he needed to be – and when he was funny, he was funny. But not only was he funny, but his words rang true. Not true in a historical sense, but in a way that your soul just said “This guy is up to something. Or maybe he’s a liar. But if he is then he is a damn good liar.”

    And you know what? He was. But that’s a good thing, because all storytellers are liars in some way, and John Wick was one of the best.

    …Now that I think of it, why the hell am I writing in the past sense. John Wick is still alive and kicking! In fact, he just put out his newest project “Wicked Fantasy” out this month. It’s pretty wicked awesome (that’s my Bostonian showing. Its also a pun). John always had a problem with D&D – two of his games, Orkworld and Houses of the Blooded, were created in response to his issues with the gaming giant. So in a way it is a bit strange that he would be creating a supplement for Pathfinder – a game that was essentially just a glorified (albeit a beautiful) sinkhole for D&D fans that had no interest in jumping ship to the new edition. And yet…what better way to criticize a game than by working within the game engine itself?

    Wicked Fantasy started off as a series articles for Kobold Quarterly, back when it was a very popular online magazine before it became a successful indie game publisher and developer. He came with the idea of looking at a bunch of typical D&D races and monsters and making them…not quite so typical. Looking through a wicked lens if you would. (That will be the last pun, I swear). He didn’t want to change them beyond recognition, but he also didn’t want them to be so damn boring. He didn’t want Humans to be just generic jack of all trades.  And by God, there was no way that Halflings were going to be a bunch of Bilbo Baggins!

    The columns were a big success, and he decided to turn them into commercial .pdfs. He enlisted the help of Gillian Fraser to act as the mechanics person, while he would handle all of the fluff. And they cracked out 10 standalone supplements to Pathfinder.

    And they blew off. By God, did they blow up. If you looked at his shop on DriveThruRPG, the Wicked Fantasy series were the top sellers. It’s easy to see why – people have been getting tired of the Tolkienan races. As wonderful of a writer as Tolkien was, seeing the same bread and butter interpretation of fantasy staples was more than old. They were more than tired. They were grounded into the Earth, dust to the wind. People were sick and tired of having to play a dwarf that was just a grump Santa that was as tall as he was wide. Elves that were just mystical, inhuman demigods had ran its course twenty years ago.

    Seeing an opportunity when he saw one, John started a Kickstarter for a physical Wicked Fantasy. He asked for $5,000. He got nearly $47,000. I am a bit ashamed to say that I was not one of the Kickstarters – I didn’t even knew it existed until months after the fact.

    But none of that explains why I love Wicked Fantasy.

    I love Wicked Fantasy because it is a darker form of heroic fantasy, but its not dark. John knows he is writing a story about heroes and villains, so he made sure the races had hints of both heroism and villainy. But he made sure the heroic side shown through just a little bit more than the darker side. Because these races, these individuals, these characters, they make mistakes. They are not perfect. God knows no one is. But they are worth saving. They are worth protecting. The world that your character inhabits, it has to be precious to your characters. If something isn’t precious, why would you risk anything for it?

    Each of the races have a strong, singular theme about them. For Humans, its “Plato’s Philosopher Kings that became true.” The dwarves – I mean Uvandir (never call a dwarf an unvandir) – are the best craftsmen in the world. But if they can’t work, they get horribly depressed. The Rodduns may be giant rats, but they are loyal and will protect you no matter what. So long as you continue to help him. And then there are the haffouns – or halflings – who are secret agents and will protect their human families no matter what. Even when their Human masters have no idea of what their haffoun servants have done for them.

    John makes these themes the pillar of the races – everything about the race revolves around these ideas. Even Fraser’s mechanics are based off of these central ideas.

    The ideas are strong, but the writing itself is even stronger. Wick would probably be scolded in literary circles who care more about “breaking new grounds” than touching the heart, but that would not hide the fact that there is a passion at the center of Wick’s wordplay. He breaks tons of rules of writing – sentence fragments are prevalent. But you keep on reading because its so damn fun. Its an actual joy to read through Wicked Fantasy. John has always managed to make sure his gamebooks are as far away from the college textbook style of most of his peers.

    His writing isn’t just fun though. It echoes with emotional power too. Take a look at this:

    “You have come to me,” says the King Rat,“telling me a story of your daughter and how these men have beaten and harmed her.” He shuffles in the dark room. “You have always offered my brothers a warm place when the rains came. Always kept their bellies full. Always hidden them when guards came to harm them. You have put yourself in danger to protect my own.” The King Rat makes a small noise in the back of his throat. “Of course I will do this thing for you. You have done so much for me. Such a small gratitude for the great kindness you have shown us.”

    That was taken from the Roddun chapter. It’s just a half dozen sentences. But with just 108 words John has told us everything – everything – about the Roddun. How much they value family. And why respect is such a powerful currency for them. The words just radiate charisma and authority. You know the King Rat’s words are political power incarnate. And its an absolute joy to read them.

    John is a game designer, but even more so he is a storyteller. He knows that stories have value. They are important. That is why he has a short story at the end of every chapter, to showcase the values of the races. He spent anywhere between ten and thirty pages telling us about the race. He uses the short stories to show us. Each of the stories are totally different in tone – some are dramatic, some are comedic, others just ooze confidence and badassery, others show a sense of tragedy. All of them are great. They are never boring.

    He knows that stories have power. He used Pathfinder to show us that.

    Is the story true? Can the iron curse be broken?
    I do not know. All I know is the story.
    And, of course, you ask me if it is true.
    Of course it is. All stories are true. Even false ones.

    August 14, 201341 commentsRead More
    How “Lords of Shadow 2” makes the argument for longer trailers

    How “Lords of Shadow 2” makes the argument for longer trailers

    It would probably be a good idea for you to watch the trailer above, or else the rest of what I’m going to say will probably go over your head.

    You did? Good. Let’s get cracking.

    At just about 6 and a half minutes, Konami has produced a trailer that definitely goes over the average running time. The usual trailer goes for around two minutes – one is not exactly rare, while anything close to three could easily be considered an act of God. This isn’t exactly unusual for the company, as their trailers for Metal Gear Solid would often reach astronomical lengths – I recall a Metal Gear Solid 3 trailer that was around 10 minutes long. This just goes to show that they are comfortable with exposing such a large amount of their games so early in their marketing cycle. And these trailers wouldn’t do damage to the brand – the MGS franchise is an absurdly popular one, and considering that they are now doing another entry that takes place before MGS 1, 2, and 4, it is evidently a successful one in terms of revenue.

    So, why is it that more companies don’t produce longer trailers? It can be understandable within the movie industry as the average blockbuster movie has a shorter run-time than the amount of cinematics in a AAA game. Additionally, the bulk of movie trailers will be watched in the theater while the audience waits for the main attraction. If every trailer was doubled or tripled in length, then that would mean the audience would have to wait even longer for their movies. Or managers would select only one or two trailers, instead of the six to eight. In contrast to videogames where trailers are most often watched online, either on a computer or another mobile device. Run time isn’t a problem because these are probably being employed as time wasters anyways. They wouldn’t mind watching a six minute trailer in this scenario.

    However, many studios do place a ton of emphasis on online marketing – as they well should! Online is everything now. If you ignore your online market, then you have no business acting as the marketing director for any sort of industry. Every major movie coming out has a FaceBook, a Twitter….maybe even a Tumblr if they are “in with it”. YouTube goes without saying. All of these would be great avenues for longer trailers. It would certainly do a good job of creating distinction between the two mediums.

    Let’s go back to the top for a bit – the e3 Lords of Shadow 2 trailer. Why is this such a great case for longer trailers? Because it wears the long running time like a glove – the editors knew what they were doing here. They had the prologue that set the scene and scope for the trailer, with each pulse interwoven with a bit of prose. Once the prologue was done – signified with Dracul’s scream and the shift from Gothic piano to adrenaline fueled brass, strings and electronics. We jump from action scene to visual storytelling back to action, but neither of these overstays their welcome. The flow of information does not feel claustrophobic, condensed or rushed. It has the benefit of taking its time and filling you with dramatic awe. That’s something you just can’t get with a mere two minute trailer – unless your talking about Tree of Life. But for every other movie, tv show or video game that is out there, a little bit more exposition can do wonders for building excitement in your product.

    It can also have another benefit – skipping out on trailer cliches. Trailers do tend to do the same thing, because they need to get as much people as possible excited in their products. So they tap into the “trailer zeitgeist” – in this generation’s case, rapid cuts and the Inception BWWAAAM of various degrees. But the more trailers do these things, the more the movies look the same and the less excited that consumers will be in them. No one wants to the see the same movie twice wrapped up in different packaging. But if a trailer can have more room to say exactly what their movie is about, then chances are they will not have to deal in cliches and make their movie/game/show’s imagery more interesting.

    June 12, 20136 commentsRead More
    Ultimately, the issue with Miles Morales

    Ultimately, the issue with Miles Morales

    Normally, I would put a preface of SPOILERS INBOUND! or something to that effect. But considering that the death of Ultimate Marvel’s Peter Parker was all on every news institution imaginable  (like, even on Fox News everywhere), I feel that would be a bit unnecessary. What I am going to do is tell you what you need to know so that everything else makes sense.

    So, way back in the prehistoric era of 2000, Marvel decided to try out a “rebooted univserse” of their comic book lines. The idea was if there were offshots of their comics that pretty much started over at Page 1, there would be a new audience that would have no issue just jumping in. Turns out they were right, and after Ultimate Spider-Man came out a whole crapload of new lines in the Ultimate universe – although that mostly consists of just the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and the absurdly awesome Ultimates/Avengers.

    In 2011, Marvel killed of Ultimate Peter Parker and replaced him with the 13 year old half African/half Latin American Miles Morales. Now you know everything you need to know.

    So this is about more so the death of Ultimate Marvel’s Peter Parker, and less so than Miles Morales. But I feel that one cannot talk about the former without talking about the latter. After all, the entire reason that Brian Michael Bendis decided to kill off Peter Parker in the first place was because he wanted to have a black Spider-Man. It was originally going to happen in 2009, during the critically panned Ultimatum crossover arc, but they decided against it and pushed it off to 2011.

    And at its root, that is the biggest problem with killing off Peter Parker. It wasn’t because they felt it was right for the story to end, or for any other creative choice. They just wanted a black Spider-Man.

    “The Death of Spider-Man” is the six issue arc that sets the stage for Peter’s demise. In many ways, some comparisons can be drawn to the 2012 film “The Dark Knight Rises”. Both deal with the fall of a hero, but whereas Peter Parker’s demise is entirely biological (he dies) , Batman’s death is idealogical (Wayne retires from the cloak and fakes his death). However, “The Dark Knight” has that theme at its very core. The idea of death and resurrection, and how a symbol is eternal, is at the very core of the film. The entire film just resonates with a sense of fatality. With “Death”, the concept of Peter Parker having to wrestle with the mortal consequence of his actions is only put into place halfway through the run, and even then it is barely touched upon. There is no thematic connection in the arc with the finale – ultimately, Peter just dies. Because he does.

    Well, that isn’t entirely true. he does have to face off against a fair amount of his Rogues Gallery, but at the end he dies. But his death has no thematic or narrative resonance with the arc. It doesn’t feel like a conclusion to Peter Parker’s story. In fact, it feels like he was going to wake up in a hospital bed in the next issue. There’s no real indication that he is going to die – he had faced worse odds and lived after all! Hell, he had even gotten shot and he didn’t die from that before. So why would he now?

    Because Bendis wanted to make room for Miles Morales.

    What is even more mind boggling is that, chances are, Peter won’t stay dead forever. This is Marvel people – they killed off Captain America once and they brought him back again. In superhero comics, death isn’t the end so much as it is just the characters taking an extended nap. In the New Ultimates Jeph Loeb had recently brought Thor back from the dead, and in the middle of “Ultimate Fallout” Thor reminisces on his lost heroic comrades that are now celebrating their new lives in Asgard – including Peter Parker. There is no reason for us to think that Peter won’t find his way back onto the mortal plane. If they wanted to – and in due time they will – they could find a way for Peter to be alive again and put on the Spidey suit.

    Now, some people may read this and think that I am venting some anger over Peter being pushed aside for a boring new character. That is not true – Miles is a good character. He is as relatable as a 13 year old can be, he has a good arc and is written fairly well. But Bendis does not use his background to his fullest – ultimately, his skin color makes no difference on his perceptions of being a super hero. What is the point of having an African Spider-Man if you aren’t going to take advantage of that?

    I suppose that is my biggest issue with the whole thing. Not that Peter Parker was killed, but that he was killed for a character that does nothing new with being Spider-Man.

    May 27, 201342 commentsRead More