Category: Gaming (page 1 of 73)

Ballad of the Doomguy

I’ve been playing a lot of 2016’s DOOM lately. It hearkens back to the shooters of my youth. There’s a lot of catharsis in blasting demons with cool weapons and punching them in the face. The levels are large and they reward exploration with opportunities to customize your preferred blasting methods and adorable figurines. Perhaps most of all, for me, it showcases some fantastic storytelling and a wonderful way to leverage a silent protagonist.

The data logs you find on everything from the UAC’s methodology to data on the demonic minions you’re exterminating are very well-written. They, like the upgrade tokens, are fun bonuses. You can get all of the story you need, though, just from the brief in-game interactions and the Doomguy’s emoting. From the start, you get a sense of your avatar’s personality, without him uttering a single line of dialog.

In brief: explorers discovered an odd geological rift on Mars that was spewing a fascinating form of energy. The Union Aerospace Corporation’s CEO, Samuel Hayden — imagine the love child of Scott Pruitt and Elon Musk who downloaded himself into a cybernetic body — went into leveraging this resource to solve an energy crisis back on Earth. The EPA can’t file lawsuits if you’re exploiting a natural resource on another planet, right? Right. And Argent Energy rendered nuclear power and fossil fuels obsolete overnight. Hayden didn’t count on his head researcher being a covert cultist who discovered the energy was coming from Hell, and talked to demons about some sort of shady deal. Next thing you know, the UAC facility is getting worked over in the style of the colony from Aliens, and Hayden is trying to figure out how to maintain profits when all of his workers are dying horribly.

Enter the Doomguy.

Our hero hates demons with a fiery passion, and was put on ice after the last time he somehow made Hell worse, at least for its demonic denizens. He wakes up in one of the UAC’s isolated labs, find his iconic armor after smashing some zombified UAC folks with his bare hands, and realizes there’s a demonic invasion afoot. Hayden contacts him right away, figuring the Doomguy can clean the place up and get the energy production back on track.

It takes about 5 seconds for the Doomguy to communicate he’s not down for being a corporate stooge.

The monitor with which Hayden contacts our hero gets smashed to the floor. Moments later, in the elevator to Mars’s surface, Hayden tries again, giving some spiel through another monitor about “the greater good”. That monitor gets a solid, indignant punch.

I can’t tell you how much I love this.

Characterization in video games can be difficult, especially in shooters. Halo’s Master Chief is your stereotypically stoic one-man army in power armor. Most of the Call of Duty protagonists tend to be walking talking recruitment campaigns for modern military organizations. Other bullet-dispensing avatars whoop and wisecrack their way through the bad guys, kicking ass and looking for a fresh pack of bubble gum.

Doomguy’s just here to smash demons and give middle fingers to corporate America while he’s at it.

On top of the pretty obvious disdain he has for the UAC, the Doomguy’s got a sense of humor. When you find the collectibles, there’s a fantastic little sting of classic DOOM music as the hero looks the figurine over. But when you find one that’s the same coloration as your current incarnation, the Doomguy gives it a fistbump. The scion of anti-demon violence and masculine badassery fistbumps a figurine.

And then there’s this little Terminator 2 Easter Egg, when the Doomguy takes a bad step and falls into molten metal:

The developers could have easily just left the Doomguy as an angry psychopathic killing machine. But they didn’t. He has a sense of humor. There are glimmers of knowing self-awareness. And when confronted with the notion that smashing all of the UAC’s work will plunge the Earth into a new energy crisis, the Doomguy shows himself to be a person with conviction, weighing that reality with the fact that demonic invasions are literally the worst thing. Hayden doesn’t agree; the Doomguy doesn’t care. Demons are bad. Sure, making life difficult on Earth is bad, but it’s still life. Better to worry about the prices of your utilities than an Imp eating your face, right? Right.

Video games are mediums of visual storytelling. They’re made for showing, rather than telling. And 2016’s DOOM does this beautifully. I think that these moments, and the data logs, keep me playing just as much as the action and exploration. Fast-paced shooting is one thing; being compelled to see the next bit of story is icing on the cake. It’s a glorious storytelling experience on top of a visceral exercise in catharsis.

I love story-based games. My next solo gaming project is Witcher 3, which will be very different but, from what I understand, rich in its own storytelling. I’m just as invested in the lore of Overwatch as I am its game balance and being a better Reinhardt. But I’ll probably be coming back to DOOM now and again. There are harder difficulties, arcade modes, classic maps, challenges… there’s a lot there, and not just in terms of ammunition and well-designed enemies.

The ballad of the Doomguy is a work of pulse-pounding death metal punctuated by shotgun blasts and breaking bones, but its melody is one of those sprawling lyrical epics about one man standing against a tide of darkness. It’s Beowulf with a BFG.

And I am, as the kids say, so here for it.

The Deep Mines of Published Adventures

I’d like to give you a bit of a peek “behind the curtain” regarding where inspiration comes from and how basic materials from other sources can lead to new ideas and new directions in storytelling. This past weekend, I put together a one-shot D&D adventure for Seattle fans of Critical Role. While I did re-watch some favorite episodes from the first campaign of the series, and read up on a good deal of material in the Tal’dorei Campaign Guide, considering this was a one-shot, I wanted to make sure that the adventure had direction and balance. With that in mind, I turned to my time acting as a Dungeon Master for the Adventurer’s League.

The two Adventurer’s League modules that I took as my basis were “The Waydown” and “The Occupation of Szith Morcaine”. They’re from the same season of the Adventurer’s League, the “Rage of Demons”, and thus had a lot in common. Both were delves into the Underdark, both involved strange beings to both interact with and fight against, and both were influenced heavily by the machinations and madness of the demon prince known as Graz’zt.

But the Adventurer’s League modules take place in the Forgotten Realms. This was an adventure in Exandria, on the continent of Tal’dorei. This lead to some questions for me, as the Dungeon Master: where is the Waydown on Tal’dorei? How are drow, duregar, myconids, and so on different in the world created by Matt Mercer? And what would Graz’zt want with Exandria?

I am, of course, not going to answer that last question here. This is going to be more than a one-shot, much to my delight. But I will say that, since these two adventures were related by the overarching “Rage of Demons,” it wasn’t difficult to tease a few bits apart, remove things that didn’t work, and weave them together into one coherent adventure with Tal’dorei flavor and and plenty of places for a party of adventurers to go.

One of the things that saw me moving away from Adventurer’s League was that in a short, two- or four-hour session, it can be very difficult to get into character, establish rapport with other players — or, if you’re the DM, any players. On the other hand, the published adventure modules are adjustable for all sorts of parties in terms of difficulty and rewards, and the through-line of start to middle to end is very easy to follow. With the change of setting and a longer session time, this flexibility made the matter of adding more narrative storytelling a straightforward one.

Now that the party’s established, and these initial adventures are completed, we can move on. While it can’t be called entirely original, considering the involvement of Graz’zt and the very nature of where Tal’dorei came from, the storyline and character hooks I have in mind are all mine, informed by my fantastic players and rooted in the desire to tell a great story woven through with emotion and character.

I also run a game on the occasional Thursday night, and we’re going through the 5th edition starter set’s “Lost Mine of Phandelver”. Again, however, this adventure has been transplanted from the Forgotten Realms to a campaign setting entirely of my own design. The world of Levexadar is my first real attempt at something like this, and as a result, I’m still tweaking things and looking to published materials. On top of the Phandelver resources, I’ve incorporated some adventure and setting trappings from the previous edition of Dungeons & Dragons. You could say I’ve “filed off the serial numbers”, and I don’t feel bad about that. So far, it’s made for a good story.

When it comes to role-playing games, you can delve deep into the fertile veins of published materials and find all sorts of things to tell a story of your own. I find my thoughts turning to parts of the Tomb of Annihilation hardcover and materials even older than 4th edition as elements to use in one or both of these campaigns. The echoes of the familiar in unexplored territory can both comfort a player, and present an opportunity to surprise them. And if you manage to surprise your players, get them invested in the world and the story, and anticipatory of what’ll happen in the next session or even the next minute, you’ve got a great game of Dungeons & Dragons on your hands.

500 Words on Elite Dangerous

Courtesy Frontier Development

When I finally get home from long commutes down to and back from the home in which my start-up employer operates, I tend to be tired and mentally drained. It’s difficult for me to muster the juices I need to fuel my writing — a fact I try not to be too hard on myself over. Still, between the fatigue and my growing disgust over the situation in this country and on this planet, I prefer to wind down my day by going to space.

For a while, this was facilitated through Star Trek Online. Star Trek is one of my favorite sci-fi universes, and I’ve met some wonderful people there. However, I slowly came to realize that in terms of gameplay, I was unfulfilled. Like all MMOs, the world is mostly static; no matter how many times to beat up a certain enemy faction, the missions in which you do so never change. It’s hard to feel like you’re having an impact on the world around you. There’s still a hard divide between your reality and that of the game world, unlike something like Skyrim.

Then, I started playing Elite Dangerous.

Digging out my old Attack 3 joystick and G13 game pad, I quickly found myself immersed in one of the best space sims I’ve ever played. A few years ago I played through a few Wing Commander games for charity, and when I was younger, spent hours upon hours in Elite Plus and Wing Commander: Privateer. In addition to the nostalgic feeling of having my hands on a “throttle” and stick, the more I play the game, the more incentive I feel to keep playing. The galaxy is truly vast, with a plethora of options of how to play. Trading, combat, mining, exploration, even hauling tourists to exotic locales — all of these are profitable ways to make your mark on the galaxy. And you can truly make a mark; the game’s background sim and Powerplay functionality mean that if you choose to, you can influence system control, shifts in allegiance, and even the course of superpowers.

I’m trying a bit of everything. My Commander has made his way far from his home system, has joined up with a like-minded group of spacefarers, and I’m fictionalizing the journey. I’m finding more and more ways to make my time in space more rewarding, more immersive, and more challenging. I’m upgrading my joystick, adding voice commands, and I’m very much looking forward to earning enough cash to fund true exploration endeavors to the farthest reaches of the galaxy. I also want to contribute more to the cause of Princess Aisling Duval, the only member of the galactic superpowers outspoken on the idea that owning people is inherently wrong.

The only drawback, so far, is a relative lack of roleplaying. However, I know that storytellers are out there. I hope we’ll run into one another eventually.

Space is, after all, quite big.

Which is why I can lose myself in it for a while.

On Fridays I write 500 words.

500 Words on Journey to Un’Goro

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

Part of having more bandwidth for games now that I have gainful dayjob employment has included a return to playing Hearthstone on a regular basis. The latest expansion, Journey to Un’Goro, drops this week, and I’m quite excited to see what it will bring. It’s already had a bunch of coverage, some absolutely fantastic promotional materials produced, and a bevy of cute art accompanies the cards. As someone who both loves to build decks, and has an eye on competition, I already have some first impressions of what this set brings, and what it will mean to the game as a whole.

Adaptation

The Discover mechanic introduced in the League of Explorers adventure is one of the best things to happen to Hearthstone. Adaptation is an extension this mechanic. Allowing you to adapt to an opponent’s strategy lends a great deal of flexibility to your deck, much as Discovery has until this point. Hearthstone’s designers like to key into the notion of ‘delightful surprise’, and Adaptation is a great example of this.

Elementals

A new grouping of minions — known as a “tribe” in the parlance of this sort of game — is the Elementals. Like Dragons and Murlocs, Elementals synergize with one another in interesting ways. Shamans already had a couple of Elementals, but now there are so many that we may actually see Elemental decks that ramp up for huge finishes with big minions.

Questing

Questing is essential to MMOs like World of Warcraft, but outside of the player’s quests that reward gold or packs, this mechanic hasn’t been seen in Hearthstone until now. Each class now has a Legendary spell that lays out some criteria. Complete the task, and you’ll be rewarded with a powerful minion, a portal to another realm, or a spell that gives you an extra turn. As impressive and bold as these spells are, it remains to be seen what impact they will have on…

The Changing Meta

For a long few months, a scant few deck types have defined the meta of Standard play. It’s been difficult to try new decks or find new ways around very powerful, solid decks. With the new expansion and the change of available cards in Standard, it’s my hope, and that of other players, that the meta is finally getting shook up. But Standard is not the only mode…

More Wild!

I used to regard Wild as more of a ‘sandbox’ mode, focusing mostly on the Standard meta. However, with so many things being relegating to Wild, from staples of the last rotation like Reno Jackson to long-standing all-stars like Sylvanas Windrunner, I will need to play more Wild for sure in the Year of the Mammoth.

I will be cracking open my many packs of Journey to Un’Goro this Saturday, and I invite you to come with me on the quest for exciting new decks! You can find my Twitch channel here, and follow my Twitter for updates, thoughts, and shenanigans. I’m definitely looking forward to this!

On Fridays I write 500 words.

The Kerrigan Question

The Queen Bitch of the Universe, Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

“Girls don’t belong in games/movies!” This is the cry of “men’s rights activists” who point to things like Rogue One and female gamers & game journalists (Susan Arendt, IRL Jasmine, etc).

“What about Sarah Kerrigan?”

I suspect I’d mostly get blank stares. Maybe a bit of drool.

Here’s the background: Sarah Kerrigan is a major character in StarCraft and its sequel. StarCraft is a massively popular real-time strategy game that is played professionally as a multi-player contest & sport. Its single-player campaigns, while maybe not having the best writing, is still full of affecting moments — the rise of Arcturus Mengsk, the sacrifice of Tassadar, etc — but I would argue that the growth and arc of Kerrigan’s story is the beating heart of the narrative, though I admittedly haven’t played the last chapter, Legacy of the Void, yet. It’s a bit beyond my means at present.

I’m going to run down Kerrigan’s story for those of you who don’t know, and proceed to my point after.

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StarCraft depicts a large-scale conflict between three races: the Terrans (that’s us), the psionic and aloof Protoss, and the swarming, ever-evolving Zerg. Sarah Kerrigan is a Terran operative, a “Ghost” (read: psychic sniper assassin) who joins you early in the Terran campaign alongside rough’n’tumble backwater space cowboy Jim Raynor. They don’t get along at first — Jimmy’s initial thoughts are about how hot Kerrigan is, and she immediately reacts with revulsion and rightly scolds Raynor for a lack of professionalism. But, through the course of fighting for survival as the Protoss and Zerg clash with the Terrans in the middle, they grow to admire, respect, and appreciate one another.

Their partnership, both professional and romantic, was short-lived. In a callous act of sacrificing his resources for convenience and advancement, master manipulator and all-around bastard Arcturus Mengsk left Kerrigan to die as her position was overrun by the Zerg forces Mengsk himself had attracted to a Terran world to better secure his political position. Disgusted, Raynor left Mengsk’s service, and looked for Kerrigan, only for her to emerge some time later as a new weapon in the Zerg’s arsenal, the fearsome and deadly ‘Queen of Blades’.

Empowered by Zerg evolutionary strains and determined to unlock her own full potential, Kerrigan proceeded to align both her former Terran comrades and several Protoss factions against the Zerg Overmind who’d had a hand (or, rather, tentacle) in creating her. Her plan succeeded, and she thanked her erstwhile allies by betraying them. Some of these allies were Protoss warriors Jim had come to trust as friends; when they were killed, he swore he’d avenge their deaths, and be the one to kill Sarah. Laughing off the threat, Kerrigan wiped the floor with what was left of the Terran forces and retreated to her own corner of the sector.

After the so-called Brood War that’d seen Kerrigan triumphant, she began to hear whispers of impending doom. To arm herself and her Swarm to face it, she invaded Terran space to find more powerful weapons. Raynor set off to oppose the Zerg invasion, seemingly still driven by his vendetta and supported by an old friend from his previous life. Things got complicated when a Protoss warrior, one of the few Raynor knew from the Brood War who hadn’t been killed, told him that Kerrigan needed to live to fight what was coming. The Terrans used the very weapon Kerrigan had sought to claim to rob her of her Zerg enhancements and leave her vulnerable. Conflicted, Raynor decided to save Kerrigan’s life at this moment, choosing to give her a chance for redemption rather than letting his friend shoot her.

Kerrigan was held for experimentation, with Raynor keeping an eye on her, and her memories as both Mengsk’s assassin and the Queen of Blades haunted her and made her question her morals and sanity. While previously Kerrigan’s ambitions had been aimed towards conquest and victory for her Swarm, her restored humanity narrowed her focus to revenge on Mengsk. The facility were she was being held was attacked by Mengsk’s forces, and in their escape, Kerrigan and Raynor were separated. While Kerrigan was able to escape, Raynor was reported to be killed, much to Mengsk’s delight. Consumed by her need for revenge, Kerrigan turns to the Zerg, returning to the Swarm to regain her former power.

Kerrigan returns to the homeworld of the Zerg and seeks her own path to evolve along instead of having it imposed upon her. In doing so, she comes to understand the Zerg on a far more fundamental level, and in doing so, not only guides it to great success, but forges it into a far more powerful force than it was before. With a renewed Swarm and her powers and memory finally under her control, Kerrigan tears across the sector towards Mengsk. Along the way, she finds Raynor alive, but her rebirth as the new Queen of Blades puts an incredible chasm between them; Jim can’t let go of everything she did as the Queen of Blades, and as much as she wants to repair that breach, since she was not the creature she was before, Jim can’t bring himself to meet her halfway. He can’t kill her, either, but joins her to kill Mengsk.

Having joined forces, Mengsk’s defenses folded under the assault of Raynor and Kerrigan. They work together to bring down the tyrant, Kerrigan saying Mengsk had “made [them] all into monsters” before blowing him up Scanners-style. With their nemesis dead, Kerrigan leaves to turn her attention back to the doom that had brought her back in the first place, leaving a conflicted and emotional Raynor in her wake, looking up at where the woman he loved (and perhaps still does) disappears.

This isn’t the end of the story, but it’s all I know, since I’m avoiding spoilers for Legacy of the Void.

The essence of Kerrigan’s story, to me, is that after getting betrayed and turned into something awful, she took control of her own destiny. She seized control of a massive, powerful alien force, just because she could. When she caught wind of something bigger coming to destroy everything, she set out to stand up to it, no matter what it cost. And after everything that happened to her, she decided to recreate her power on her own terms in order to either rescue a dude important to her or avenge herself on the bastard who’d betrayed her in the first place. To me, that speaks of self-actualization, independence, and empowerment.

I can see some counterpoints to this perspective, but the fact remains that she is a major character who becomes a protagonist in a major sci-fi gaming franchise, and yet, insecure man-kids haven’t brought her up as an example of something that doesn’t belong in their games. So is it because she’s not as prominent as the leads in Rogue One or The Force Awakens, or is it because they felt some sort of satisfaction in what happened to her when she was disempowered? I’m not sure; it’s a headspace I have a lot of trouble getting into.

I’m just going to toss this out for potential discussion. What do you think of Sarah Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades, as a character? Is she a positive or negative influence on female empowerment in science fiction? And does Legacy of the Void go on sale regularly, so I can finish the story and also get some awesome, shiny Protoss action? Let me know!

Mondays are for making & talking about art.

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