The Sunday Papers

Sundays are for trying to make a baby laugh by blowing raspberries, dancing, putting your face close to his, etc. Baby will not laugh at the week’s best games writing so let’s get moving.

David Gaider is a writer and game designer at BioWare. He wrote this past week an article titled “I Want to Write Video Games”, targeted at people who might say such a thing.

Do you? Do you really? Be honest with me.

I mean, I don’t want to shoot down your dream. There are lots of people who’ve done the research, who know exactly what they’re getting into when they say this, and who spend years earnestly pursuing their goal. There are also lots of people who like the notion of getting into game development but figure they’ll never have any real skills like programming or art so this is their best bet.

This week’s guest column at Giant Bomb was Gita Jackson on Dragon Age: Inquisition, and how it reflected her own life experiences.

When your Inquisitor recruits Blackwall in Dragon Age: Inquisition, you have a short conversation with him after he returns to Haven with you. He asks you if you’re really the person they pulled from the rift in the sky, and if you’re not human, he follows that up with, “I have to admit, I thought you’d be…” That question just hangs in the air, your character answering, “Human?” After picking the brains of a friend who had previously played through Inquisition, I discovered that I picked a race that’s somewhat fraught in the Dragon Age universe. I played as a Qunari–I didn’t actually know much about the fiction of Dragon Age, I just wanted my Big Large Devil Babe to murder a dragon and sit on someone’s face. Unfortunately my Devil Babe–her name was Rihanna–was going to be spending a lot of time hearing all the ways in which people don’t like or trust her.

At Gamasutra, this past week’s Game Design Deep Dive was Michael McMaster and Jacob Strasser on color as identity in Push Me Pull You. .

Unfortunately, this raised a particular conceptual problem – since the most prominent color of each player was their skin color, players would take to this as their team’s defining feature. Watching people play our game at events, we’d hear them describe the match setup as “black team versus white team”, referring to the onscreen skin tones. Rooting players’ identities in this specifically racial language made us uncomfortable – at best, it felt out of tone with the game we wanted to make, and at worst it framed the in-game competition as this surreal battle-of-the-races.

At Eurogamer, Edwin Evans-Thirlwell, sometimes of this parish, writes about putting magic back into magic in fantasy games. Richard Cobbett covered similar ground for us last year.

There are few things less surprising about most fantasy games than how they portray magic, which is a pretty depressing state of affairs given that magic is, by definition, the art of doing the impossible. The impossible, it turns out, has a fairly limited set of applications. By and large, it means hitting foes with elementally-flavoured balls of fire, turbo-charging your stats or zapping wounded allies back to fighting fitness, in accordance with a collection of tactical rule sets derived from the works of Tolkien via Dungeons and Dragons.

I spent the past week reviewing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, which prompted me to go read Tom’s recent-ish post about why Human Revolution’s multiple routes are compelling.

Deus Ex’s appeal is often boiled down to ‘lots of options’, but obviously that doesn’t quite cover it. Right now I’m looking to redesign the ‘sneaking inside spaceships’ part of Heat Signature, so I need more than a vague line about what’s cool about Deus Ex – I need a practical understanding of specifically why it works, and why similar games don’t. So I’m replaying Deus Ex 1 and 3, to figure out what it is I want to steal. And I think it is options, but it’s not just number. They have to fill a certain set of requirements, and this is my attempt to nail down what those are.

And just as I’m writing this, the reviews have gone up. I read PC Gamer’s review by Andy Kelly and liked it. Particularly for all the ways in which we agree, which appears to be all of the ways.

While on a counter-terrorism mission in Dubai, which serves as the game’s tutorial level, Jensen and his squad are ambushed by augmented mercenaries wearing creepy gold masks. This sets the main story in motion, and he soon finds himself tangled up in a sinister conspiracy involving the Illuminati. Who else? The story takes place mostly in Prague, with a few stops in other countries that I won’t spoil for you. And, honestly, it’s the weakest part of the game. I never felt that invested in what was going on, and by the end I didn’t feel like I’d learned anything about Jensen as a character.

Music this week is any part of the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack.

From this site

55 Comments

  1. WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

    “I played as a Qunari–I didn’t actually know much about the fiction of Dragon Age, I just wanted my Big Large Devil Babe to murder a dragon and sit on someone’s face. Unfortunately my Devil Babe–her name was Rihanna–was going to be spending a lot of time hearing all the ways in which people don’t like or trust her.”

    In this paragraph, we may have reached Peak Bioware.

    • gou says:

      binaryware

    • Michael Anson says:

      So, are you suggesting that the accurate portrayal of the way people act in a fantasy setting to help sell the setting is in some way a bad thing?

  2. SMGreer says:

    That’s a cracking read from Gita Jackson, it really is.

    And I’m surprised youse don’t just recommend the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack every Sunday. Never a bad time to listen to it.

    • Melody says:

      1) Select “The Real Folk Blues”
      2) Pause it
      3) Open your Equalizer. Turn up the bass.
      4) Resume play
      5) Replay song as many times as necessary.
      6) \o/

      Alternatively, choose a bass cover on youtube. Like this one.

    • Shazbut says:

      Yeah, that was a great article

    • Premium User Badge

      gritz says:

      Agreed. One of the best pieces to show up in the Sunday Papers in a while.

    • Rizlar says:

      Interesting to see it in relation to the DX:MD review and the comments on it here. Something superficially fantastical exploring contemporary issues in a deep and meaningful way while something overtly modern and political just absolutely fails to say anything.

      Definitely read something similar of Gita Jackson’s in the past, great stuff.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Lars Westergren says:

    The poster called “Internet” did a nice analysis of the 50 most funded Kickstarters in the RPS forums:

    link to rockpapershotgun.com

  4. Alto3 says:

    […] in accordance with a collection of tactical rule sets derived from the works of Tolkien via Dungeons and Dragons.

    Uhh, what? I’m guessing this person has never read a work by Tolkien before, or never played a game of D&D before, or both.

    While D&D is certainly heavily inspired by the works of Tolkien, the magic system in D&D isn’t. Like, at all.

    Magic in Tolkien’s works is:
    A) subtle (well, most of the time)
    B) immensely, incredibly rare (at least by the Third Age, in which the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are set)

    If Gandalf were a D&D wizard, he’d be throwing explosive fireballs around, conjuring meteor storms, disintegrating people into ash, reading their minds, turning his skin into stone, calling lightning bolts from the sky, etc. Magic in your typical D&D world is, while not common, certainly not rare, and comes in many form. Also, if Lord of the Rings was set in a typical D&D world, there would be probably be more than three wizards in the whole of the western world.

    • Michael Fogg says:

      But wait… Gandalf could pick up a pinecone, magically set it on fire and then throw it at an enemy! That counts for something, right?

      • Alto3 says:

        Well, that’s why I decided to prefix “fireballs” with “explosive”. Also, that is one of only a handful of times Gandalf uses magic in an overt and destructive way.

    • Phasma Felis says:

      Everyone assumed D&D is mainly based on Tolkien because it’s got elves, dwarves, orcs, and hobbits right up front and very visible. Gygax was apparently not a Tolkien fan at all, and mostly added the elves etc. because his players demanded it; the overall design is really a huge random mishmash of different fantasy works from ancient times up through the ’70s. Anything that any of the guys read in a book and liked wound up in the game.

    • NathanH says:

      It seems increasingly common to lazily describe a fantasy setting as “Tolkeinesque” when it really shares few features of the setting aside the basic races, and few to none of the themes.

  5. ROMhack2 says:

    I hadn’t read any Mankind Divided reviews until now but that PCGamer review one makes it sound quite disappointing.

    I had the same issue with Human Revolution too so me thinks I’ll be waiting for it to decrease in price considerably before me buys it.

    • ROMhack2 says:

      Here’s what I meant to put:

      “I do get it, yes. And I get that science fiction, particularly cyberpunk, should hold a mirror up to our own society to reveal something about it. But Mankind Divided doesn’t have anything interesting to say, and its political and social commentary is about as entry-level as it gets. It has no message—other than, perhaps, “prejudice is bad”—and it reveals no hidden truth about, well, anything. And that’s a shame, because I feel like this setting is fertile ground for a great story. I just don’t think Eidos Montreal knows how to tell one yet.”

      • Geebs says:

        The first Deus Ex’s story was really just a combination of the National Enquirer and a complete failure to understand Neuromancer. It was still an amazing game.

        • Michael Fogg says:

          Dude, I recommend you watch a recent video on Deus Ex by Accursed Farms (Ross’ Game Dungeon). Everyone, watch it.

          • Premium User Badge

            alison says:

            Holy crap that was good. I wasn’t sure at the beginning because his delivery is so hammy and YouTube, but it got deep. Made we want to go play Deus Ex again. Best game.

      • Scurra says:

        It has no message—other than, perhaps, “prejudice is bad”
        And that’s bad why, exactly? Particularly at a time when we are being forcibly reminded that it hasn’t gone away (although hopefully that’s because it’s going down fighting rather than because it’s coming back.)

        • Distec says:

          Because it’s a mawkish sentiment that most people will just nod and roll their eyes to. “Yes, prejudice is bad. Anything else?” Statements like this aren’t particularly helpful or productive; you really need to be drilling down into specifics and (god forbid) maybe entertain some contrary views if this is going to be anything other than a cheap lecture.

          I’ll be getting MD soon enough and I’m sure I’ll be more than happy with it. But going by the reviews, I see all the more reason for DX to drop this facile “social commentary” bullshit and go back to crazy cyberpunk conspiracies full-time. The original games had some of this, but it wasn’t hitting that same drum over and over again. Some of the most fascinating things in the first one, like having a conversation with the Morpheus AI, felt so much bigger than this slapdash “Augs/Racism” angle. EM can’t seem to pull it off and I don’t think anybody asked for it any way.

          • Turkey says:

            I have no idea why they’re treating it as a race issue at all. IRL augs would obviously be a class issue like in the original DX.

          • Premium User Badge

            alison says:

            I tend to agree insofar as presumably people who can afford to be augmented would be the upper class. This was the case in Human Revolution. That said, I also understand how you could spin a racism metaphor – many of the mechanical augmentations in the Deus Ex world cannot be hidden. You immediately become a visible minority. On the third hand, no one is actually born with augmentation; for the (former) rich it was a lifestyle choice and for others it may have been a medical necessity. So it’s an interesting thing to consider. I just really hope there is more nuance than the reviewers up till now have mentioned 😕

          • Premium User Badge

            alison says:

            Mmm I dunno. Although I found the layers upon layers of improbable conspiracies in Deus Ex a delight, I think it was also important that aspects of the ever-wackier story had a basis in the real world. It made the characters more identifiable. Judging by the reviews it seems Eidos Montréal missed the mark here (just as they did in Human Revolution), but I’ll withhold judgement till I play it. Still, I’d rather they try and fail than not try at all.

            The biggest challenge to overcome with the world they have set up is, in my opinion, the X-Men problem. If the thing that makes you different from everyone else actually makes you more powerful than everyone else, it’s hard to sell a story that the powerful ones are actually the oppressed ones. The only time I remember it working in the X-Men universe was in District X, a comic about a ghetto full of mutants whose “powers” were manifested as physical deformities and/or serious handicaps. In that world, where the vast majority of mutants are cursed with visible “abnormalities” and only a handful are “super”, you can tell a much more interesting story about oppression. I am hoping Mankind Divided is more the District X of Deus Ex than its Uncanny.

          • onionman says:

            Distec, this right here is why you’re my favorite commenter on RPS. Keep up the good work.

          • LennyLeonardo says:

            Isn’t the whole transhuman thing an issue in which a class divide creates a new “race”? So like,it’s like, inextricably both? I like that the new DX games are good and focused on mechanical augmentation as it’s increasingly relevant to our time, but I agree that the approach in HR was a little slapdash. Looking forward to trying MD though. TLA FTW, etc.

        • DrollRemark says:

          Because nobody thinks they’re prejudiced. If you say “prejudice is bad,” everyone can say “Yes, absolutely! Luckily I’m not prejudiced, I just wish other people weren’t too,” and they can wash their hands of the message and move on.

      • kwyjibo says:

        Yeah, it’s a shame where the story seems to be going.

        The stuff about mechanical apartheid seems pretty forced, and not terribly interesting. Deus Ex is about conspiracies, about the machinations of the shadowy elite.

        It’s an interesting topic to tackle now, with anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism surging. I ended Deus Ex 2 with a form of nanotechnology augmented direct democracy, which given Brexit is probably the worst thing in the world.

  6. Geebs says:

    Gaider’s ok-ish, but Drew Karpyshin wrote the actually good stuff, like the first Mass Effect and Jade Empire.

    To be honest, though, nobody at Bioware gets to have an opinion about what constitutes good writing since just before the ending of ME2.

    • malkav11 says:

      Patrick Weekes, who wrote the fourth Dragon Age novel and I believe led the writing team on Inquisition, is pretty excellent as far as I’m concerned. Definitely better than Gaider’s DA novels, although they aren’t terrible and got better as he went. Weekes has a trilogy of fantasy caper novels in his own setting that are quite recommendable as well.

      Inquisition has its faults, but it seems substantially better on the writing front than DA2 as far as I’ve gotten, and doesn’t commit the sins of either ME2 or ME3 in terms of clashing with established series canon or taking things off in a weird direction that doesn’t really fit the original premise. I haven’t beaten it yet, so I can’t say if its ending jumps off a cliff the way ME3’s did, but I assume I would have heard a similar degree of backlash if it had. Instead the complaints seem mostly to be that it’s boring and full of grindy repetition, and well…it is. but that’s not the writing.

      • grylxndr says:

        Some clarifications for both, so long as we’re assigning credit and blame for things:

        Mike Laidlaw and Luke Kristjanson co-wrote Jade Empire. Laidlaw is now creative lead for Dragon Age, and as far as I know Kristjanson still floats around wherever they need him. I think he’s the most senior writer still writing, he worked on BG1.

        Gaider was writing lead on Inquisition, and left for Beamdog after. That’s when Weekes took over as lead. Before DAI, which he was on the team for, Weekes was on Mass Effect.

        • malkav11 says:

          Doh, that’s right, Weekes is the DA lead going forward, not for Inquisition. Although he did write some of my favorite characters in that game, and my single favorite part of Mass Effect 3 (the Tuchanka sequence).

  7. Wulfram says:

    Gaider is no longer at Bioware, he’s at Beamdog now.

  8. Michael Fogg says:

    Writers in videogame industry should stick to incidental dialogue and item descriptions etc. and leave the actual plots to gameplay designers so that their ideas don’t clash with what you actually do in a game.

    • Premium User Badge

      Jekadu says:

      Did you read the article? Your comment doesn’t seem to address anything Gaider actually wrote.

      • Josh W says:

        I think it’s the game discipline equivalent of “women should stay in the kitchen”, although obviously, easier for prospective targets to avoid.

  9. TillEulenspiegel says:

    That Tom Francis Deus Ex post is an incredible example of missing the forest for the trees, drilling down into a few partially relevant details without ever looking at the big picture.

    Helpfully, the commenters explain why Deus Ex 1 actually works, and give an example of a pretty good level in DX:HR which I’d forgotten (the police station).

  10. Premium User Badge

    corinoco says:

    Most of D&Ds magic came, verbatim, from Jack Vance’s ‘Dying Earth’ series – where it was common but unreliable. How many times in Skyrim does your fireball stick explode in your own face?

    The best ever treatment of magic in a game I’ve played was the ‘Wild Mage’ in Baldurs Gate 2. Powerful but random, it was great fun!

    • JFS says:

      Baldur’s Gate, as mentioned below, portrayed matic very well. Magic was variable there, from useless to overpowered, from straightforward to situational, and it had a depth to it in form of schools, memory slots and detailed characteristics (with real descriptions!). It wasn’t gamey or really “balanced”, though – it had verisimilitude. And that’s why gamers bitched and moaned about it and we’re now stuck with Bioware.

      Simplification/”streamlining” is a double-edged sword, and I feel in this regard it’s why we can’t have nice things anymore. It also gave us the new XCOMs that play really slick, so it isn’t all bad, but it takes (our-world) magic out in favour of clear mechanics.

      • Crafty_Banana says:

        I can’t see the magic in Baldur’s Gate as any more or less ‘gamey’ than any other edition, really – they’re just spells from D&D 2E, they each have a strictly defined set of mechanics, deal damage within a defined range, have predictable chances to immobilise enemies, etc. Its magic system wasn’t some mystical, half understood thing – it was as open to understanding (and optimisation) as anything else.

  11. zsd says:

    Ugh, there’s some interesting things to be read in Gaider’s article, but you really have to chisel through that wall of reinforced smugness to find it.

  12. Aerothorn says:

    Graham, minor correction: Gaider no longer works at Bioware (he retired, took a bit of time off, then went to work for Beamdog).

  13. Premium User Badge

    Eleven says:

    Talking of the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack, here’s The Seatbelts doing “Tank!” live, with an audience who are properly up for it.

    I’ve been to a lot of great concerts, but I’m genuinely sad I wasn’t at that one.

  14. Baines says:

    The main issue with magic in games is the same issue that affects other activities and skills. Something is either a very limited story-driven task, or it will be performed hundreds if not tens of thousands of times.

    Combat magic can be special when a character gets into only three fights in a book. In the average game, you’ll have three fights before you even leave the starting area. When you make combat a heavy presence and the primary threat to the player, then you end up further weakening magic in various in the sake of balance.

    Situations solved with utility magic can be equally rare in a book, which further allows the author to come up with magic designed specifically for each task.

    If you look at longer running series of novels, you can see that the more often used magic becomes less magical there, becoming a character-defining gimmick, where the author can’t really justify the character *not* constantly using that ability as a solution.

    Jim Butcher somewhat addresses this issue with Harry Dresden, “simply” by having Dresden constantly evolving his skills. Dresden’s go-to magics are rings that store force, bracelets that produce a shield, and shooting fire. As the books progress, and Dresden finds that he keeps facing more and tougher situations, he learns and adapts and evolves his approaches. (In the case of fire magic, Butcher instead largely uses major changes to Dresden’s status to shake that area up.) To show more “magical magic”, Butcher has Dresden perform more one-use spells every now and then (some of which return in more common form in the future) and has other stronger characters popping in occasionally to show off the kind of amazing stuff that Dresden wouldn’t be able to do for decades.

    At first I felt the Dresden approach doesn’t really suit games. There are various ways to handle it wrong, after all. But thinking about it, maybe it would work in games, if magic users were continually upgrading their existing abilities rather than constantly gaining new ones. That could at least keep some variety present even with heavier use, which would allow the developers to work a bit more on making magic itself a bit more special without having to face that immediate handicap.

  15. anHorse says:

    The magic article/sentiment is interesting because the exact same thing is happening in writing, ever since Sanderson got big everyone wants to spend 100 or so pages telling me about their highly specific magic system.

    Videogames might actually be somewhat to blame here given the age of most of the authors who do this, if you play a lot of rpgs you will frequently see magic presented as a system of balanced elements.
    Weirdly this runs directly parallel to magical realism becoming really popular in the literary world with authors like Murakami having great success with books where the magic is typically entirely beyond comprehension.

    Unfortunately I don’t really like this because some of the appeal of magic is that it’s unknowable, unexplainable, having a perfectly explained system doesn’t fit that.

    For a closing thought I think a lot of the issues with magic in videogames comes down to the need for graphical representation and statistical effect, the best games for having proper traditional magic tend to be more text based stuff like roguelikes or dragon pass style games i.e. Academagia.

    • anHorse says:

      That Unfortunately is about the gamey systems in books, not about magical realism btw.

      I didn’t go back over the post after I added that comment in so now it reads badly.

    • Wulfram says:

      I find the notion that magic has to be mysterious and beyond comprehension to be really magic a bit annoying, to be honest. Magic is mysterious and unknowable in our world largely because it doesn’t exist. That doesn’t have to transfer over to worlds where it does.

      And in video games, I can’t help but feel that a lot of what video games are about is systematising things so that the player can play with them. Leaving magic mysterious essentially means keeping it out of the hands of the player.

      • lylebot says:

        I dunno, I think that if magic is has a clear, understandable system (no matter how complex) underlying it, it ceases to be magic. It’s “just” a science.

        Imagine a world like ours, but where electricity can’t be harnessed. Wouldn’t a world with electricity seem like magic? And yet to us it isn’t. People in that world could say “magic is mysterious and unknowable because it doesn’t exist” and write speculative fiction about a world with systems that allow the harnessing of electricity and call it “magic”, but that doesn’t make it so.

        In practice I think either can be interesting when written well and when the consequences are well-thought out. Too often writers ignore the consequences, though. George RR Martin has a famous quote about fiction in which wizards cast enormous fireballs into columns of infantry, noting that in a world in which wizards can do that, armies would not organize as columns of infantry.

        I’d love to see a video game in which magic is fundamentally unknowable, yet still accessible by the player. I imagine there’d have to be a lot of extremely well-hidden RNGs behind the scenes.

        • Josh W says:

          Science is still pretty magic to me, you just need to go outside of the standard examples and use cases (magnetism is about either sticking magnets to things or rotating turbines and motors), and the real world can produce all kinds of weird and interesting results.

          Most of my examples have been well documented by now by the “I fucking love science” crowd, and so they aren’t news, but man, ferrofluids! Ferrofluids!

  16. TheAngriestHobo says:

    There are a few games that did magic right…

    -The Ultima series, and particularly U7, had a litany of wonderful, useless spells. Remember ignite? AKA the “I can’t be arsed to walk five feet and click on that torch” spell? Or mass awaken (which some have theorized was invented by a total dick)? Honorable mentions also go to Dance and Fireworks, which are exactly what they sound like.

    -Baldur’s Gate carried on the tradition to a lesser degree. You had Polymorph Other, AKA “you were rude to me and now you’re a squirrel”. Know alignment was also just on the verge of being useless, but it added color to the game and could very rarely be used to catch a liar in the act if you had the presence of mind to cast it.

    -The early Bethesda games (before the company became cynical and awful) had some elements of this, particularly with the spellmaking and enchanting processes. Create Item, for instance, was a highly exploitable spell effect from Daggerfall. There were also useless spells like the ones that drained personality from NPCs in Morrowind.

    There are probably other examples, but those three (particularly the first two) stand out in my mind.

    • MondSemmel says:

      Roguelikes would be another example of genres that often get magic right. The variety of magic spells, items, pills, potions, etc., that can interact in weird and unexpected ways, and range from common but weak to rare but enormously powerful effects, makes for much more interesting magic than exists in most other game genres. For instance, the hallucination effect in Brogue makes for enormously tense moments and can easily get you killed; and polymorph-type effects are amazing in any roguelike they appear in.

  17. NotGodot says:

    Why would anyone trust Gaider’s opinions about video game writing, considering that Bioware pioneered the bad-RPG style of story-telling rather than story-playing?

  18. Yglorba says:

    Ironically, for all that the article complains about D&D magic, I feel that many of the games that had the most interesting magic drew on it. Early D&D had the advantage of being a tabletop game, which let it do much more interesting stuff with spells; games like the early Dark Sun games adapted those, so you could conjure clouds of fog to cover you as you snuck through a room, or lay a complicated trap with entangling vines and explosive runes.

    I feel the problem is more that games have had this constant gravity towards whatever is easiest to implement and towards the basic MMORPG party types (buff, heal, tank, DPS), which tends to steadily erode more interesting and harder-to-implement spells. I mean, I don’t disagree that D&D’s magic is reductive in its own way, but currently? I only wish your typical videogame had magic as interesting as the early D&Ds.

    (Unfortunately D&D itself got less interesting magic as time passed and they started to focus on supporting videogame adaptions, where things like summoning and bargaining with demons for their service wasn’t reasonable implementable and persistent create-wall magic was hard to balance.)

  19. Grim Rainbow says:

    When I was a lad we had to cook dinner with magic missiles.