Tag: FTL

From the Vault: Death & Consequences

Dayjob demands have put me way behind in several ways. As I struggle to recover & catch up, here’s an entry from last year that I feel is still relevant.

Courtesy Firaxis Games
One of these soldiers is likely to die.

There’s just something about a game, or story, that doesn’t pull its punches.

I get a feeling for that something when I play FTL or the new XCOM. A ship exploding under my intrepid crew or a favorite soldier getting their face melted off by plasma fire carries a bit of an emotional wallop. I’m tempted to keep the autosave feature of XCOM turned off to heighten that feeling and maintain the game’s edge. And that edge comes from choices having consequences, and those consequences sticking.

When games present their players with choice, the experience is improved when those choices mean something later on. One of the strengths of the Mass Effect series was that who you spared and who you left to rot does come back in one way or another, even if it doesn’t play too much into the overall story. While the consequences of those choices only really mattered in a minor sense, it felt like they mattered, at least to me.

In the aforementioned games, the choices really do matter, and a wrong choice means death. It’s not telegraphed or presented in story terms, either; they’re the little incidental gaming choices we make, like having a soldier cover a civilian’s retreat, or picking one class of weapon over another, or choosing the destination for your vessel. It is nearly impossible to predict which choices will lead to total victory and which will lead to bloody doom. That is what makes these games challenging and fun to play.

Similarly, some of the best stories out there have characters who make choices that lead to either their deaths or the deaths of others. It happens to men and women in command all the time, sure, but others are simply doing what they feel is right or trying to protect someone or something they love. George RR Martin, Jim Butcher, and Chuck Wendig have all done this – a character we like makes a decision, does all they can to back that decision up, and it explodes in their face. Someone close to them gets hurt or killed, and their own life may come close to ending before the story’s done. It’s tragic, it’s harrowing, and it’s great storytelling.

Make your character’s choices matter. Make those deaths mean something.

The Speed of Strategy

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment
First contact with the Protoss. Better think fast.

Yesterday’s Extra Credits discussed depth & complexity in games. When discussing complexity, James asks the question “How many mental calculations per second are you asking of your player?” He then goes on to posit that turn-based strategy games are no more complex than first-person shooters, based on the number and types of decisions a player must make based on the pace of play. But turn-based isn’t the only kind of strategy game out there. When considering the degree of challenge presented by a game based on strategic, overarching decision-making, the speed at which the game progresses is very important.

When I think turn-based strategy, I think Civilization. It’s the 4X game I grew up with and, while I miss Master of Orion, the latest iteration is very polished and well-presented. As all of your decisions are done on your turn, and no time limit is imposed on those turns, the pace of play is very leisurely. While you are making complicated choices, especially as you develop more technologies and expand your empire, you are under no temporal pressure to come to a conclusion. You have all the time in the world, and that makes a game of Civ truly relaxing, if incredibly time-consuming.

Some games present the choices of the player in relative real time but mitigate the pace with the use of a pause function. So it is with FTL. Weapons fire and teleporters activate just as soon as their cooldowns make them available, which can lead to some intensity, especially when you have multiple hull breaches and you have Mantis invaders chewing on your crew. But you can hit the Pause button at any time, catch your breath, and consider the situation from a broad perspective. This reduces the immediate burden on your brain and mitigates the pressure, thus making decision-making a bit easier and reducing what appears to be a daunting amount of complexity.

Online games do not afford the luxury of a pause function. Time manipulation in the real world would be a titanic advantage, but chronomancy is unfortunately restricted to speculative fiction. However, team-based play like that in League of Legends tends to take the burden off of the individual player. Ideally, five brains are better than one, and being able to at least discuss the situation at hand if not develop a plan of attack based on that information lessens the cognitive burden on the individual. The pace is still fast and some decisions will need to be made immediately without help from the team, but that ‘safety net’ is still there.

And then you have solo real-time strategy experiences like StarCraft 2. While a team mode does exist for the game, the play that earns the most attention, accolades, and money is the one-on-one experience. You can strategize and theorycraft until the exploding sheep come home, but when the game begins, all of your decisions need to be made immediately. You must process information on the fly, while carrying out your own plans. You must both out-smart and out-play your opponent, even if you’re going for a held-back strategy that works from the angle of base expansion, defense, area control, and technological upgrades as opposed to, say, a cannon rush.

Yet the decisions you have to make in a game of StarCraft – unit composition, the approach to the objective, examination of opponent’s weaknesses to exploit – are not that different from those in Civilization. They simply need to happen more quickly, and while this may make the game seem more complex, I dare say it really isn’t. The complexity of the decisions is magnified by the pace of play, but taken on their own the decisions themselves are not that difficult. It is, however, difficult to make a solid decision in a very limited span of time, and still have the confidence to know it was the right one to make (see also The Walking Dead).

This is both the challenge and the appeal of strategy. No matter what the pace of play might be, the brain is fully engaged in making decisions and carrying out strategies. Playing well is definitely more a case of mind over matter, and I for one am a huge fan of thinking your way out of a difficult position.

Incoming Extra Life

Courtesy Extra Life

The time is quickly approaching. In less than a month, I will be stockpiling almonds, dried fruit, chocolate, tea, and a great deal of bottled water for a lengthy, arduous, and draining ordeal. It is my intention to stay in this very chair as much as possible, for at least 24 hours, all in the name of children’s health in the city of Philadelphia.

Thankfully, I’ll be playing video games the whole time.

Yes, Extra Life is coming soon! Last year I pulled it off successfully, playing Alpha Protocol and other games (if memory serves, things got weird after hour 16 or so) for 24 hours and raising $250 for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. This year, I will be representing CHOP once again, and since I missed out on an opportunity to play Guild Wars 2 as part of a group, I’ll be doing my own thing for the second year in a row.

But which game to play? I’ve given serious consideration to a couple and narrowed my choices down somewhat. I’m not going to do any multiplayer games as waiting in queues is not playing. I also would like to have some sort of live, social component to the gameplay. At the very least liveblogging via Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr, and possibly streaming with Twitch. But I can iron out those details in the weeks to come. First and foremost, here are my top picks for Extra Life 2012.

Wing Commander (and sequels?)

I have to wonder if this old favorite is as good as I remember it being. Space flight sims are few and far between these days, and Wing Commander still boasts a dynamic, branching storyline, interesting and well-rounded characters, and evolving combat that simulate experiences like those from Battlestar Galactica. I want to see if the game (and, time permitting, at least its first sequel) stand the test of time.

LA Noire

This has been on my “to-play” list for a very long time. I’m torn between it and the Assassin’s Creed games I haven’t played yet (Brotherhood & Revelations) but I think LA Noire wins due to the style of the period and the prospect of thinking my way through interrogation scenes. Not to mention the fun of people yelling at me when I let a suspect go or start smacking a witness around. It would tie in nicely to those detective novellas I’m writing. Sadly, LA Noire has no vampires in it. That I’m aware of, at least.

Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013

I already started up the campaign for this game, but I do have the expansion, the rest of the main story, both revenge campaigns, Challenges, Planechase, and general deck management dickery to do. Of course if I run out of all of that stuff I can break my “no live games” rule and just play Magic Online to fill out the time.

Painkiller HD

If anything is liable to keep me awake for 24 hours straight, it’s blasting legions of the damned with a gun that shoots shurikens and lightning.

FTL

If you’re not aware of this little indy gem, you should check out these video looks at the game. It’s a Rogue-like game, hardcore in its approach, with permadeath, random events, surprisingly intense combat, and interesting decision-making. Plus I may let people name the characters on new ships! Then cackle when fan favorites bite the dust. Remember, it’s for the kids.

XCOM Enemy Unknown

I talked about this yesterday and I couldn’t be more excited to play the full game. However, I’d hold off on touching it at all if this is the way I decide to go. Oh, I’ll pre-order it regardless, but I won’t play it until the event begins.

So. Want to help me out?

The poll you’re seeing to your right includes the above games. If you like, you can pick one for me to play on October 20th! I’ll make my decision and lay out a plan of attack next week, in addition to updating my Extra Life profile and giving you all the information you need to donate, tune in, and watch me slowly destroy myself in the name of video games and charity. It should be loads of fun!

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