Game Philosopher

The philosophy of games and gaming

Narration – A real use for Patrick Stewart?

Posted by gamephilosopher on May 15, 2007

I remember taking a film class in college where the professor said something to the effect of “Narration in a film should be avoided at all costs”. In other words, having a narrator was a cheap way to convey feelings or situations and filmmakers should really use characters or settings to make those points.

I tend to disagree, and I think lots of games illustrate how the lack of a narrator allows the gamer to take of lot of the game for granted. Perhaps with a film its a little bit different, as the only things you’re going to see as a viewer are the things that the director is going to show you, but with a game, I think you have a little more freedom to draw in the gamer without destroying things like flow and style.

Take this image from MobyGames’ screenshot page of Baldur’s Gate 2.


Its a pic of a Dragon totally destroying a party. I would imagine quite a bit of work went into this dragon, and even though the room they’re in is quite plain, someone still had to imagine the scene and build it. When you play the game, you’re not taking any time to admire the pattern of the floor or any of the other missing details that could be conveyed before even meeting the dragon. Also, when the dragon dies, that’s it. The dragon is dead and you just move on.

How about this instead?

[Your party walks through the doorway and the “fog of war” opens to reveal a large space] The narrator jumps in, “As you step through the doorway you suddenly find yourself standing at one end of a large, stone floored room. You recognize the stonework as being similar to the fortresses you visited in Candlekeep. As you begin to smell the sweet air of the outdoors making its way to this chamber, your party files in and you begin to smell something a bit more malodorous. Your party is not alone in this room, and whatever it is that’s now breathing on the other side of the room is walking towards you.”

That was a little crude, but i think the meaning is there. There’s so much atmosphere and back story that could be conveyed in games but is really just left for the player to dream up. In my experience, I’m too busy playing the game, clicking around, making sure my party members arent lagging behind, managing inventory, etc. I think if the narrator kicked in and said something it would really cause me to stop “playing” the game and look at where I am and what i’m really doing. Maybe even say to myself “yeah that is a pretty cool pattern on the floor” or “Damn that dragon is huge – look at the steam coming out of it!”

I think of the book The Fellowship of the Ring and I know immediately why I loved reading it. Tolkien didn’t just tell you a plot line, he told you a story. It had history, which he conveyed to you by telling you about the houses and the trees and the people and what they were doing last year and will be doing tomorrow. The book created a plot, but around it was a world so imaginable, you couldn’t help but get consumed by it.

Games just don’t have that. The world in Baldur’s Gate is just as forgettable as the one in any other RPG of the era. None of them stand out because none of them feel very real. The only way to make the world real is to add as much detail as possible to it, and narration is an oft overlooked medium.

In an industry where we are now using movie actors to voice our games, wouldn’t it make sense to actually use one of them significantly more as a narrator? Would you want to hear Patric Stewart or James Earl Jones narrating through a game? Discuss.


Posted in Discussion | Comments Off on Narration – A real use for Patrick Stewart?

An Explanation of My Links

Posted by gamephilosopher on February 17, 2007

I don’t just link to things just for the sake of linking; these are good sites that I think you should know about.

  • Blue’s News – A really good, non-commercial news site for all kinds of games, but mostly PC games. I’ve been going here daily for several years. There is an annoying flash popup at the top of the page, unfortunately
  • CD Access – Like Chips N Bits, an online game shop that has a lot of old games.
  • Chips N Bits – Online game shop. Has a good section of old games / suspected abandonware
  • Gama Sutra – A gaming industry site. Lots of great information, including job postings, game postmortems, and company profiles.
  • Game FAQs – The best place to find cheats, walkthroughs and maps for just about every game without having to deal with stupid popups, logging in or any other crap from a commercial gaming site.
  • Game Rankings – Another meta-review site, like Game Tab. Find the average review score of a game from across all the sites that have reviewed it.
  • Game Tab – A meta-review site that averages ratings across popular review sites.
  • Game Trade Zone – A place to trade games. You can find a lot of oldies here. Definately a good place for those of you that are budget minded.
  • Home of the Underdogs – While I do not support piracy, some games are no longer available any other way.
  • PC Games that Weren’t – It looks like a new site, but a cool one nonetheless. It’s about games that were cancelled and the stories behind them.
  • The Best Selling PC Games since 2000 – Next Generation’s take on the top 100 best selling games since 2000
  • To the Game – Game release dates. Customizable so you can monitor the ones you’re interested in.
  • Ye Olde Infocom Shoppe – Before you call an old game abandonware, check here. While they don’t sell new/unopened games straight from the publisher, you can get a lot of really old games for the C64, Apple and PC from the 80’s and early 90’s.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on An Explanation of My Links

Waiting out the hype

Posted by gamephilosopher on November 7, 2006

You know when a game is coming out that you REALLY want to play, and you spend ages on the internet reading articles, previews, forum posts and anything else you can get your hands on to help satisfy your hunger for the game?

In my experience, this leads to one thing: disappointment when you actually play the game. For whatever reason, be it overzealous designers, over-excited reviewers, or your own too-wild imagination, you tend to get the game and find out that it’s really not as good as everyone thought it was going to be.

Think of: Anachronox, Blade of Darkness, Vampire: The Masquerade, Deus Ex 2, Doom 3, and Oblivion.

I think I may have found a loophole, fortunately. Like I said, the first time you play the game, you’re expecting so much, you’ve waited so long, perhaps through a pre-order line, or camped out in front of a store. When you get the game home, you’ve just completed your own little quest for entertainment, and when you find out the game isn’t the next game of the year, you’re pissed.

Here’s something I discovered. Leave the game alone for 6 months to a year. Move on, and let the game just sit there. Then, come back and play it having forgotten about the broken promises, hype, and every stupid feature that doesn’t meet your tastes. In a year, you won’t remember all of those things you were disappointed about not having and you’ll just play the game. You’ll find that there are a lot of redeeming values to the game despite the fact that it was rushed out the door in time for the holidays.

I recently did this with all of the games I listed above except for Deus Ex 2 and Oblivion. Oblivion is too new and DX2 is going to need a little more time in the vault before I can forget about how incredible the original was in comparison… but they’re on the list.

There are other benefits, too. If you found out you didn’t like the game BEFORE you bought it, you can save yourself a lot of money buying it a year later, not to mention make a statement to the publisher that you’re not going to blindly purchase lackluster games. Also, patches, walkthroughs and any community-driven benefits, like mods, will be in full swing by one year’s time. Lastly, your computer may be updated a little bit, giving you the ability to play it with a decent frames per second at high detail settings.

I’m currently thoroughly enjoying Doom 3, despite it’s flaws because I’ve really forgotten all that was promised that I didn’t see delivered. I have happy memories of finishing Anachronox and am also enjoying Blade of Darkness and Vampire as breaks from Doom 3.

So next time you’re pissed that a game didnt meet your expectations (just wait until Christmas – it’ll happen), put the game on the shelf and let it marinate for a year. When you come back to it with fresh eyes, you’ll be glad you did. I’m sure you’ll find there’s a lot of gaming goodness in even the most over-hyped of games.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

To save or not to save?

Posted by gamephilosopher on October 25, 2006

When designing games in my head, I’m often torn as to how to handle saving. I like to push for what I see as realism, but balance that with keeping the game fun.

I remember when Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption came out several years ago. It had a pretty bad save mechanism where you had to go back to your “home base” to save the game. That meant that the entire time you were out on missions, you couldnt save at all.

This was incredibly annoying as a player because it’s inevitable that you’re going to die at some point in time during a mission. On the other hand, if I was designing the game to immerse the player in the world of vampires, I might want to emphasize the lack of safety that a vampire may feel when he is out there amongst the humans. Further, that he must return to his lair in order to rest and heal himself.

I was reading a review of the game (probably PC Gamer) and it said something like, “PC GAME DESIGNERS, there is absolutely no excuse for not allowing your players to save whenever they want to.” At the time, I agreed.

In this case, the need for realism gets in the way of gaming. You WANT to have a fun time playing the game, and playing over parts you’ve done three times already because you’ve died tends to not be fun anymore.

But then how do you instill fear into the player? The rationale behind fear is that you are afraid of losing something — your life, your wallet, job, whatever. If you could reload in real life, would you be afraid if someone pulled a gun out on you on a dark street? Why should you fear what you can easily go back and avoid?

Let’s explore some strategies for saving.
Single Save Slot – Older games had this where you could save and load at will, but you didnt have a whole list of saved games you could reload — you only had one slot. That meant that you could save before a boss battle or before trying something stupid, but you couldnt go back to a game you saved 2 days ago and try a different plot branch – you had to replay the game to do that.

In my opinion, it’s a pretty good way to ensure you don’t focus on protecting your ass by saving constantly, but it can lead to really bad situations where you’re too low on health to continue and dont have any saved games to go back to. Perhaps you could combine this strategy with the next one.

Checkpoints – Final Fantasy 7 and Anachronox are 2 of the many games that used checkpoints as a saving model, including most console games. It’s not a bad way to go, but I often found that the checkpoints were either nowhere near where I died, causing me to have to redo scenarios or they were tell-tale signs that I was about to hit a boss or a really tough area. Some games just saved your progress at the beginning of each new level, so no matter where you died in it, you only had to redo that one level. Again, lots of replay.

Skill Level – Hitman allowed you to pick a skill level at the beginning of the game that would determine in several different ways how hard the game would be. One of the variables across the skill levels was the number of saved game credits you were given at the beginning of each level. So, easy skill level allowed 10 saves per level, while hard only had 3. If you were really good, you could save your credits for later levels where you may need more than your allotment. If you used them up, you had to start the level over again.

Sands of Time – The latest 3 Prince of Persia games introduced a nice way to ensure you don’t have to reload every time something goes wrong. You could rewind time for about 10 seconds and undo your mistakes. You had to kill enemies to earn credits to rewind and if you didn’t have any more credits you couldnt rewind. Further, you had to wait after rewinding time to refill your rewind counter, or else you’d only be able to rewind for a shorter amount of time. You also had checkpoints at each level, so if you screwed up your rewinding and really died, you only had to go back to the beginning of the level.

Progression only – I dont really have an accurate title for this one 🙂 But its essentially that you live with your mistakes and you don’t have the option of going back, only continuing onward with the choices that have been made. This is similar to the single save slot approach, but you don’t really have the option to save and load, only to continue on. This is best illustrated in Indigo Prophecy/Farenheit and Mount and Blade. (I’ll review Mount and Blade shortly)

So there you have it. Several of the variations on saving. So how do you design a save game system without discouraging the player and without allowing the player to become complacent with the welfare of the character? Discuss.

Posted in Principles | 5 Comments »

Weekend Discussion: How Important is the Interface?

Posted by gamephilosopher on September 30, 2006

Who’s going to go first?

Since I’m going to be doing other things this weekend, how about I post a discussion topic and you all spend your time discussing it?

How important is the interface to you? Would you still play a great game if it had a bad interface? Would you even be able to call it a great game if it did? Is more feedback from the interface in the form of menus and statistics always a good thing?

Are you always looking for the same kind of things in your menu systems and controls or do you think they vary by game?

To me, the way I interact with the game, the controls, the menus – they’re all very important. I find that the more intuitive the controls are and the more feedback I get from the game, the better. GTA San Andreas’ multitude of statistics about my game so far was a great way to see how well I was playing, and really keep me interested in getting into all sorts of challenges with myself to see if i could beat my high scores.

Posted in Discussion, Principles | 1 Comment »

Gaming Principles: Immersion

Posted by gamephilosopher on September 29, 2006

I was thinking the other day about a game I have played and beaten several times called Dream Web. One of the things that attracts me to this game is the immersion that it creates. What’s even more interesting is that the game isn’t very complex or graphically spectacular, so I wonder why it is that I am reminded of it constantly and feel so drawn to play it again.

I can see already that this article is going to spawn off a few tangential articles…

One of the things that I remember vividly about the game is that, while the graphics were not very great even at release, the environments had enough detail that you spent a good amount of time looking around and absorbing what the scene was offering. I found myself feeling like I was really there because I could relate to the scene.

On a side note, comparing the game to Oblivion, you realize that every house in Oblivion looks largely the same, despite differences in layout. With Dream Web, you can only actually get into 2 or 3 houses, so the feel of immersion that being in a home would bring doesn’t get stale.

I think what I’m discovering is that to get immersion, you don’t actually NEED complexity. I don’t have to be able to interact with every little gadget in the room, but it does need to be destinct and original. Perhaps it’s like those people who inherit a lot of money and buy a big house but don’t have enough money to furnish it — if you make the game-world big, you have to be prepared to fill it with interesting, realistic things and not just variations on a theme.

Moving on, one of the things that I still remember to this day is the sound of the rain storms. The game definately paid attention to what the player was hearing and how it complimented the game. Many games these days have weather effects, but they’re random, so they never intentionally match with the game’s plot. *slight spoiler* In Dream Web, after you’ve killed your first person, you wake up in a dirty alley in the pouring rain.  It just feels right – that it should be thindering and raining and dirty and slightly saddening. You’ve just gone from a guy with bad dreams, to a guy with bad dreams who’s killing people. There are other sounds that I remember from that game. The ambient music in the game has a real airy sort of feel to it – almost like someone exhaling. I found it to be a really immersive touch once I related the music to breathing.

In my opinion, sound is very undervalued in games. There are some very immersive things you can do with sound, and very little is actually done. Probably because people tend to focus on graphics as being the most important part of a video game, and it’s much easier to show a customer how great a game looks rather than how great it sounds.

Thinking of another very immersive game, System Shock, I remember there were actually times in both the original and its sequel where I actually got scared. I would say that you’d have to be pretty immersed in a game in order for it to scare you.

But why does System Shock scare me but Painkiller or some other horror game doesn’t? I think the System Shock series had a different way of scaring you which was a little more immersive – first, it was a little more realistic to think of yourself as a weak, confused hacker lost on a spaceship that has been taken over by a rogue AI than a motorcycle man blasting flying demons with an incendiary shotgun, like in Painkiller.

Part of immersion is the player’s ability to relate to the player-character’s situation. If you make the circumstances incredibly outlandish, the player doesn’t have the ability to think as if they would if they were actually in the situation. Too many “leaps of faith” break immersion.

OPEN FOR COMMENTS: What kind of things break immersion? If the immersion-breaker is necessary for the plot, how can the situation be designed so it has less of a negative impact?

=Linkage to Mobygames for further reading: Dream Web, System Shock 1, System Shock 2=

Posted in Great Games, Principles, websites | 2 Comments »

Games you love anyway – Neocron

Posted by gamephilosopher on September 27, 2006

I was originally going to call this segment “Bad Games you Love Anyway” but I thought that was a bit harsh, not to mention inaccurate. So let’s try the implication that the game isn’t the best, but we love it anyway…

I would say, without a doubt, the game I love but can’t describe why is Neocron. It’s an MMORPG/FPS set in the future after some type of apocolypse, but all of that is really irrelevant, since you have no impact on the plot and the plot rarely changes.

Actually that isn’t such a bad thing. Most people’s top 10 games of all time include games with no plot like Doom, Wolfenstein and Alternate Reality: The City, but we don’t complain about them, do we?

To be fair, the game has a mini-novel’s worth of history to set up the game world and there is stuff going on, it’s just not very engrossing, and definately not the reason why you would play the game or even stick around after the free trial. Games like Morrowind or World of Warcraft have hundreds if not thousands of unique quests. The most you could get away with in Neocron is about 10 or so.

This game also has bugs. Loads of them. Everywhere. Features don’t work or don’t work properly, descriptions for items are missing, instructions are scattered all over the place and largely suplemented by fans. Oh yeah and patches are as scarce as the populations.

So what’s good about the game? We’ll that’s a little harder to pinpoint. For one, the post-apocolyptic thing has been overdone in many mediums, but not in MMOs. While many people focus on swords and sorcery for their RPGs, this game is futuristic, more like Deux Ex than Neverwinter Nights. It definately has originality going for it.

Similarly, the Cyberpunk genre in computer games, even single player ones, is sorely lacking recently. We’ve had great games like Blade Runner, System Shock, and even oldies like Neuromancer, but, if memory serves, there hasn’t been anything out recently to quench the thirst for those of us with a cyberpunk fetish. Neocron deviates from the overcrowded, heavily asian influenced view of the future that most cyberpunk attaches to, but it still manages to deliver on that feeling that the world took a wrong turn and now we’re stuck in some sort of high-tech stone age.

It also focuses on Player vs Player (PvP). This game leans more towards hard-core, so if you’re going to play the game for an extended period of time, you’re going to be fighting over the outposts scattered in the wastelands outside of the cities, which mean you’ll be fighting other players. This is definately the most alluring part of the game because it’s far more interesting to be attacking other smart opponents than the usual stupid enemy AI.

One of the things that sucks me in about RPGs and Neocron especially is the stat management. When you really get down to it, Neocron is focused a lot on stats. I think it was through bad design, but there really aren’t a lot of options if you’re interested in PvP for the endgame. What that leads to is an almost fanatical focus on the minutiae of every stat down to the single point. If you want to use a specific gun, while still be able to do a non-combat skill you have to set your character up just right. Otherwise, you’ll be too slow, or really vulnerable to a certain type of attack.

The last thing I’ll touch on is the community. This game has a small but tight community that is best evidenced by the activity on the official forums. Some of the top players gather there to trade opionions and strategies. I’m not sure if its the fact that the game is rather small in scope or what, but the players and the mods on the forums work a lot better together than the communities I’ve seen for the Star Wars MMO, WoW, and EQ.

And that’s what its really all about in the end, isn’t it? Community? If you want to shoot stuff, you could easily play Unreal Tournament or Far Cry, but if you want to interact with REAL people inside a FPS, then Neocron may be the thing to check out.

In fact, check it out regardless.

Posted in Game Reviews, mmofps, Neocron, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Games you love anyway – Neocron

The case for abandonware

Posted by gamephilosopher on September 25, 2006

First off, let me say that I am 100% against piracy for all formats: DVD, Games, TV Shows, etc. If the content is economically profitable for its owners, duplicating or freely distributing it should be illegal.

So where does my definition of piracy stray from your average copyright holder’s? That would be around the point where the need for the game to be in the public’s hands outweighs the revenue gained from selling said game.

Let me explain. Putting a game on a shelf is very expensive. At a certain point, the publisher realizes that they’d rather focus their effort and money on a more profitable game, and so they stop selling an older game. At this point, the amount of buyers is so low that spending time and money to publish the software just isn’t worth it.

Sometimes the games get compiled into a collection and re-released years later, but its usually saved for the really great series, like TSR’s old Dungeons and Drangons games, or Sierra’s King’s Quest.

For the rest of the games, you have to rely on Abandonware. The term is used to refer to the games that have been abandoned by the publisher to never see the light of day again and therefore are released freely on a website for download. This is, of course, illegal but there are many websites that get away with it. These abandonware sites allow us to play games that are never, EVER going to be on any shelf at Circuit City again, and give us gamers and opportunity to relive our childhoods. Here, the demand for the game outweighs the game’s profitability, and while I understand it is illegal, I support the concept.

Please note that just because a game is old, does not mean it is not profitable. Starcraft, released by Blizzard in ’98 is still, to this day being played by hard core fans. Despite its age, Starcraft would never be construed as abandoned because Blizzard is selling the product and making money from it.

I support abandonware because I’ve been a gamer since 1986, back when some games didn’t have graphics at all, and some of the best ones only used 4. Yes, thats right, FOUR colors. Here’s the first game I ever bought: Ninja by Mastertronic. It’s also important to realize that old books have libraries and used book stores, but a similar mechanism for getting used games does not exist.

I respect gaming as a legitimate form of entertainment and don’t believe that because something is not profitable to the publisher, it should never be played again. Books get reprinted by other publishers whose sole purpose is to release classics. Movies get repackaged and copied on to the new media of the decade and released, but Ninja will never be put on a DVD collection and released again.

I understand that it is illegal, and many websites do too, often removing download links when oldies become available on the market, or even pointing you to where you can find and old classic for sale by a collector.

This is true love of a game. At a certain point, the publishers should step back and realize that they put out such a great game that 10, 15, 20 years down the road people still want to play it.

I would have no problem with paying the publisher $5 to get an oldie from ’86 because I believe in copyrights, but until that day comes, I’ll take my abandonware.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments »

Games that weren’t

Posted by gamephilosopher on September 13, 2006

I’d like to kick off this article with a mention of a website i found recently, its called PC Games that Weren’t, which is a site about games that were in some stage of development and then cancelled. Articles, while a little thin right now, tell of the story behind the game and the reasons surrounding its cancellation. Very interesting reading.

I had a segment planned to talk about games that never made it, and conveniently, i have a supporting link now too! So check that site out after you read mine 🙂

Imagine a game, a roleplaying game, where your reputation is affected by the quality and type of clothes that you wear, or the way you interact with people you encounter, from beggars, to arena champions to guards. Imagine a game with not only great music, but lyrics that went along with them. Imagine various guilds that could teach you spells but would only allow you in depending on if your stats matched their requirements to join. It has taverns, inns, healers, banks, and even places to work. It had several songs, including a theme song, complete with words that displayed on the screen so you could sing along. It used sounds to clue you in on if the NPC you were encountering was good or evil, and even to let you know you were walking near a secret passage. (you would hear wind blowing) It had a full day and night cycle and you could watch the sun rise and set — it would even make things pinkish at dusk, like in real life.
Sounds like a game from Troika, Bethesda or Bioware, doesn’t it?

Well it’s not. Its a game called Alternate Realty The City, originally created by Paradise Programming in 1985. It was picked up by Datasoft and released on the Atari 8Bit and later ported to the Atari ST, Amiga, PC, Apple II and C64.

The orignal idea was to make a game with a City and a sewer underneath. The city would be where you bought weapons and healed yourself up for the dangers that would be presented in the sewer. Unfortunately, Datasoft got nervous that the product wasn’t going to make it out for the holiday season, so they made the developer split the game into two parts, the City and now, the Dungeon.

Now the City is released as a stand-alone product, but without the sewers below the city, THE GAME HAS NO PLOT. It’s like making Final Fantasy 1 with all the towns and Final Fantasy 2 with all the wilderness and dungeons.

Fortunately, they released The Dungeon for the Atari 2 years later and you could import your character from the City to the Dungeon.

Datasoft, like any publisher, wanted to capitalize on the project, so they hired programmers to port The City to several other platforms. Back in the 80’s differring computer systems were like apples and oranges, so we ended up with several very different versions of The City. The Amiga version had 16 bit colors, but the PC version had 16 colors total. Both the Amiga and PC versions had new features that the original Apple version didnt have. Oh yeah, and the PC version had about 25% of the music/sound, which is a crucial part of the game.

The Dungeon was only released for the Atari, C64 and Apple, leaving the rest of The City ports to hang out in the wind with no follow-up. I had the PC version. I remember getting it way back when at Egghead Software. My sister got Boulder Dash. It was a pretty good day for gaming. We both unknowlingly bought classics. 🙂

The City, with its sewers was originally going to be part of 6 games that were released as expansions that were to be added to the main game to create a larger game. These subsequent games were gonig to unfold the plot and give you new places to explore and new things to do. These installments never made it, but have hints of their presence are in the city in the form of a Casino, Arena, Palace and House of Ill Repute that are all permanently closed.

I love The City and I still play it. I love the game for the game it could have been, and I often wonder what the next few installments were going to be like. We’ll never know, because Phillip Price, the guy who made the games is not around very much anymore. He does own the rights to the games, however, and has put them in the public domain, so you can download them for free. I love this game because it was so far ahead of its time compared to anything out there at the time. (I remember Kings Quest 4 boasting its day/night cycle in the late 80s.)

Go to Eobet’s website or the Wikipedia article and download this gem. I’m putting this one on my desert island games too 🙂

Posted in Desert Island Games, Great Games | 1 Comment »

Finally played WoW

Posted by gamephilosopher on September 12, 2006

Oh yeah, after writing that article on Rob Pardo, I decided that I really needed to give World of Warcraft a shot. I did. It’s good. Real good. We’ll talk about it later.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »