The Sunday Papers

Sundays are for enjoying Father’s Day with a long lie, and relaxing even more after the prior day’s modest birthday celebrations. 32, eh? This seems a decent age to read some decent games writing:

Christian Donlan at Eurogamer writes about Sony’s E3 press conference, finding little that truly excites among its polished, melancholic worlds of violence. I felt this way about E3 as a whole, at points, and Sony’s was most guilty of it for the similarity in presentation style between games.

This year, PlayStation’s Gatsby has a rather strange idea of what makes a party. This was exemplary stuff in one manner of speaking. The days in which Sony would stop everything for fifteen minutes to fill us in on a swish marketing deal with Coca-Cola, or a cable show they were thinking of making, are long gone. This is games start to finish, and most of them look pretty good – even if more than you might expect are destined for 2018. Big names, small names, PS4, Pro, and PSVR – no Vita, but the way that that PSVR is hived off into its own segment suggests that it might be the new Vita anyway – this was another show of strength. And yet there is something a little odd about it. Sony’s 2017 conference did a very nice line in gloomy spectacle, but it had little thematic range. Video games are beautiful, melancholic affairs, if Sony is to be listened to. They are set, more often than not, in the vast, dripping outdoors, and they are populated by angry or subdued loners engaged in grumpy bursts of hyperviolence.

Jeff Vogel followed up on his article for Gamasutra about games having too many words with a case study at his own site. He looks at the opening of Pillars of Eternity and breaks down, part by part, what it’s doing with words and gives examples of why it’s too many. The common defence for this stuff is, “A lot of those words are optional!”. That doesn’t satisfy me personally because the drive to make the best decision is strong (where ‘best’ is variable) and it’s not always clear that ‘optional’ text won’t help me make a better choice. (Also something being optional isn’t an excuse for it to be boring or overlong).

All the descriptions together are about 330 words, much of it references to random game locations the player has no knowledge of. “Ein Glanfath” “Dyrwood” “Glanfathan” “Ixamitl” “Naasitaq” How can anyone get anything coherent from this tangle? This is literally the second thing the game shows you.

Seriously, try this: Read the description of “Eir Glanfath” above. Then close your eyes and count to ten. Then say everything you recall about Eir Glanfath. I’ll bet you retained very little. And that’s setting aside whether this stuff is actually necessary to play the game. (Not really.)

Robert Yang wrote a warning this past week not to idealise ‘simpler’ times, but also not to lose faith in harder times.

Four years ago, we were also talking about a “queer games scene” and thinking about how to direct that momentum. For a variety of reasons, that energy ended up dissipating. On the plus side, there are definitely more people doing this work now, which is good, but there’s also much less appetite for concentrating it into a “scene”, which hurts our visibility and solidarity.

You might also enjoy his piece on the Murder, She Wrote episode on VR, which Alice has screengrabbed frequently on RPS.

Meanwhile, Gita Jackson at Kotaku commends the depictions of black characters’ hair at E3.

While this year’s E3 was definitely full of afros, I noticed a difference. The hair looked right. It looked good, even, and it wasn’t played for a joke. Characters with afros, like this unnamed woman in the trailer for A Way Out, weren’t shucking and jiving. Her hair texture implies that “particulate mass of hyper-tight curls” that Narcisse describes.

Simon Parkin writes in the New Yorker about a falconer who works for videogames and tech companies, using the birds to keep their multi-million dollar campuses free from pests. The article finds other commonalities between falconry and game design, though I’m interested mostly in the absurdities of large corporations.

Bystanders who balk at the sight of someone shooting pigeons are often delighted to see a raptor up close. As one Riot Games employee told me, “It’s a strangely beautiful way to deal with a mundane problem.” To see these birds, icons of environmental fragility, wheeling soundlessly around corporate buildings is, Macdonald said, a “kind of redemptive act, a naturalization of the workings of late capitalism.”

Adriaan de Jongh wrote about how he (and Sylvain Tegroeg) created Hidden Folks, the Where’s Waldo-like can-you-spot game that came out earlier this year. He writes about the huge amount of effort that went into making each area of the game, with some lovely gifs.

When we start working on a new area in the game, we first make an ‘interaction scene’ where Sylvain puts together all the interactions of a theme in one scene. The image above is only one small section of this scene. With this scene, I can start working on the technical side of the interactions (more on this later) while Sylvain can focus on putting together a rough layout with our ideas for sub-themes spread across the map. With a rough layout indicating how certain sub-themes make up sub-areas, Sylvain starts filling in the map, organically growing each sub-area bit by bit, while I add scripts to certain visuals to make them interactive – to give each sub-area not only a distinctive look, but also a distinctive feel.

Music this week is Van Morrison’s Caravan. The album it’s from, Moondance, is up on Spotify.

From this site

36 Comments

  1. Walkerz says:

    Is Jeff Vogel even serious? His games are litteraly only words to make up for the (understandable) lack of graphics. Plus, for some strange reason, his conclusion seem to conviently forget how much Pillars 2 perfomed on fig. Looks like many words for a superficial work to me.

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      tigerfort says:

      Well, it isn’t as though Pillars was designed to meet the desires of the people who backed it on kickstarter because we wanted precisely the sort of wordy lore stuff he’s moaning about. Oh, wait, that’s exactly who it was designed for.

    • Archonsod says:

      It’s the UI he’s complaining about more than anything else. He does make some good points, PoE went a little overboard on the tooltips.

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        tigerfort says:

        I actually thought the tool-tips were a really good way of making information available to those who wanted it. It avoided the problems of both the huge wall of text (in which you can’t find anything) and “civopedia” (where you have to stop and look things up elsewhere) approaches. If anything, I wanted more of them, not fewer!

        • onodera says:

          It’s not the tooltips, it’s the amount of exposition and system knowledge you have to digest up front. It’s easier than starting Dwarf Fortress without reading a single tutorial, but produces similar amounts of confusion. Which options are important, how will they affect my playstyle? And every single option shovels more exposition that won’t combine into a single picture until perhaps halfway into the game.

    • The Adventurer Times says:

      He’s right to present a lack of editing as a problem, but he focuses on the number of words as if it signifies any quality when divorced from the language’s function.

      Part of the reason his analysis can be abrasive is that he disagrees with the text on that function, though. Pillars of Eternity thinks it should inform the player about hir place within the setting framework. Jeff Voxel believes it should really just focus on the player’s position in the game’s conflict resolution system.

      • onodera says:

        > Pillars of Eternity thinks it should inform the player about hir place within the setting framework.

        That’s actually the problem: there’s no setting framework. The game tells you you have diarrhea and immediately proceeds to talk about different countries’ views on gender without even bothering to tell you which one you’re currently in and what other countries think about it.

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      N'Al says:

      To me, the issue is less whether there are too many words or not, but rather that at that particular point in the game – namely the very start – a lot of the text that is there is simply meaningless or nonsensical. I’m both a backer and a veteran of the Infinity Engine games so I’m perfectly happy for lengthy wordy games, but even I struggled to understand much of the options (and/or their importance) given to me during character creation in PoE.

      PoE is hardly the only game guilty of this, but it is a rather striking recent example. Didn’t stop me from liking what I’ve played of the game so far, but doesn’t make for a particularly easy or welcoming entry into the game.

      Also, I do appreciate the irony of a lengthy blog post to complain about word length in a computer game.

      • onodera says:

        Well, yes, the post was long, but it was much better structured than PoE’s intro and character creation.

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          N'Al says:

          True, but I still think its arguments are off-point. The problem with PoE’s character creation is not that there are too many words, but that you as a player have no idea at that point what those words mean. The answer isn’t to reduce the number of words per se – although I don’t doubt that would ALSO help – but to make those words that are there be more meaningful.

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        FhnuZoag says:

        I don’t think those factors can be divorced from each other. You can’t pad “your character’s gender will have no impact on this story” (which is all that needs to be said, really) into so many words at the start of character creation without having most of them be meaningless, confusing, or nonsensical. You can’t spew infinite facts at the player and have them all be equally interesting and important and memorable. The player’s time, attention and memory capability is a resource that needs to be managed.

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          N'Al says:

          Absolutely. But merely reducing the number of words isn’t guaranteed to do that. You have to make sure the words that are left are meaningful too.

          Conceivably you could have very little words that are just as confusing as the long blocks of text currently in PoE. Instead of an entire paragraph on “Soul Whip” you may have “Soul Whip + 1”, which still doesn’t mean much to the player at that point.

          Vogel’s article does somewhat go into that, but the title is definitely misleading since it focuses on the NUMBER of words only.

          • Landiss says:

            I don’t think he is focusing on number of words only. Judging from both this article and his previous one on Gamasutra, the issue for him clearly is not simply the amount of words, but the quality of writing, pacing etc. He simply puts it all in a purposeful simplification in the catchy title.

    • RuySan says:

      Some of Vogel’s games, like the geneforge series, might be wordy, but the writing never felt like lore dumps like in poe and numenera.

      I felt both of these games to have pretty terrible writing and in no way justified the amount of text.

      I think he’s spot on on his blog post

      • TaylanK says:

        I think an important part of this analysis should be the origins of the systems and lore that classic CRPGs have relied on. Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Torment, and many earlier games too, were based on AD&D, and their rulesets were well digested by the audience way ahead of actually playing the game on a computer. BG and ID were straight out of Forgotten Realms, one of the most popular RPG settings ever. The character generation screens of those games for me were like slipping into familiar slippers and the lore was simply fan service; I knew way more about the lore than those games actually exposed. The combat was probably just as clusterfucky as PoE but I could easily skim through the combat log and understand what was happening, because I had rolled those rolls a million times before on tabletop.

        Having played PoE, it felt to me as if the designers did not fully appreciate the novelty of their own setting and its implications for player experience. You shouldn’t dump lore of a brand new world on the player as if you’re still in Toril or Krynn, which is exactly what they did.

        Same thing with races, subraces, classes and skills. I was very keen on realtime combat with pauses before playing PoE, and was defensive of their choice, because that’s what the old games did, right? Now I realize those games felt right to me because their systems were piggy-backing on my intimate familiarity with the rules, because with PoE half the time I had no idea wtf was going on in combat or what my strategy was. A great source of joy in older infinity games came from clever combos with different class abilities used in tandem or just in the right order and timing. There was no way I was gonna be able grasp PoE rules and classes and everything well enough to achieve the same feeling of control.

        I’m glad the game was successful though, and I don’t regret supporting them. Launching a game is hard enough without a whole new setting to go with it. Hopefully they’ll have learned from this experience.

    • Chillicothe says:

      I just say that he’s still trying to put all games into Column A or Column B and it’s getting messy.

      Also, good on Gita’s article too.

    • Michael Fogg says:

      The original Fallout was very good at keeping things rich in meaning but short on text. The descriptions were terse, sometimes ambigous and often laced with dark humour. They really stimulated the player’s imagination and contributed to the design of the world as a mysterious and hostile place.

  2. onodera says:

    I liked PoE, but I agree that it could’ve handled exposition better. Tyranny also had to introduce a whole new IP, but it was carefully crafted to optimize the onboarding. The evil empire is a big blob, you learn about Kyros and three Archons in the intro movie. The conquest minigame teaches you about the game world. It has its shortfalls (you don’t learn anything about the paths you don’t take), but you enter the game with enough knowledge of the world around you.

    Perhaps an even better comparison would be Dragon Age: Origins. Thedas is a huge pseudo-European world, but your background is limited to six choices from Ferelden with obvious implications (only elves and mages need minimal exposition). The rest of the world is gradually introduced during the game itself.

    PoE could’ve easily limited the starting choices to Vailian republics, Dyrwood, Eir Glanfath and Readceras. Their relationships can be easily explained in a couple of minutes of voiceover and limited animation.

    • onodera says:

      I actually went and watched the intro again on Youtube. It literally says you’re riding in a wagon train to a frontier village and fall ill. That’s it, you’re expected to design your character based on that. You don’t even learn you’re travelling to Dyrwood.

    • malkav11 says:

      Well, yes. Tyranny reflects a number of lessons clearly learned from Pillars. It’ll be interesting to see what PoE2’s character creation and intro look like.

  3. Abacus says:

    “To see these birds, icons of environmental fragility, wheeling soundlessly around corporate buildings is, Macdonald said, a “kind of redemptive act, a naturalization of the workings of late capitalism.””

    That’s going straight into Pseud’s Corner

  4. Ghostwise says:

    I feel exactly like Mr. Yang, but without the little pep talk at the end.

  5. Dersu says:

    I’m really sorry, but this internet nobody just has something he wants to express through a rant (sorry potential reader, if there are such), here it goes:

    I found myself nodding along with last week’s article regarding the same subject of crpgs having too many words. But this time, after being presented with some detailed examples of what Jeff Vogel considers to be “too wordy” – I changed my mind.

    It’s not that I disagree with the principle. Yes editing is important and necessary, especially in regards to size of some of those text boxes in dialogues and such. But I’m unconvinced about what he showed, specifically the part about character creation.

    I think Obsidian and traditional crpgs, in my mind at least, attempt at creating a fully realized and fictional world, with minimal reliance on cutting edge visuals and cinematics. And so alot of it is based on player’s imagination. There is a huge difference between, say, Bethesda’s recent titles and CRPGs. For Bethesda, it’s about “living in another world” (which was more-or-less the marketing slogan for Skyrim if I’m not mistaken). In other words, it’s about You, the player, experiencing virtual freedom and expressing himself through the game. Don’t get me wrong I like Skyrim and to some extent Fallout 4, but they are not RPGs, as far as I’m concerned, and they share very little in common with those. That’s just an example of a design approach that removes the “fluff” and makes gameplay king and lore completely optional. Not saying it’s bad, I’d like to believe that it is a conscious design decision on their part. Personally, I think lore and wordiness are integral to RPGs.

    In CRPGs, at least in theory, it’s about creating a character and playing him or her. A character that could conceivably exist in that specific world. That is why during character creation in such a game it’s important to absorb alot of information that will explain how that world works; what are the different societies therein; the class structure and even the gender roles. The idea here is not about being “yourself” in another world but about playing as a character you created in that world, that is based on the lore and game-rules.

    Maybe that is exactly the issue – in regard to Vogel’s example with wordy description of sexes – that people just decide before-hand what gender they’re gonna pick, and consequently, what class and race.

    I don’t think Obsidian in this instance actually expects you to remember the name of a specific river and such, at least not at that point. It may or may not become relevant – and that is exactly where the editing should come in effect – but I honestly don’t see the problem with remembering the basic gist about Dyrwood and Eín Glanfath (for example). The amount of lore may or may not be relevant depending on the amount of roleplaying you intended to do (and alot if it isn’t “practical” gameplay-wise) but it’s still essential for a proper CRPGS.

    Finally, I personally like how novel-like these games are. We have plenty of “cinematic” ones already. And this thing about “show-don’t-tell” became like an obsessive mantra at a certain point, almost devoid of meaning nowdays. Sometimes there are things that are simply worth telling and saying, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of that.
    – End Rant – (I’m so sorry)

    • Archonsod says:

      That’s kinda his point though. During character creation I don’t care about the geography of some country I’ve never heard of (and isn’t actually relevant to the game). What I do care about is how playing a dwarf is going to be different to playing a human.
      It’s not that the amount of background fluff is a problem as such, simply the way it’s being presented. I don’t want to sit through half a geography lesson to find out that picking a dwarf rather than an elf gives me some resistance buffs and plus two strength. Just tell me straight up that’s what it does; if you want to give a full rundown on the geography and history of Dwarves then stick it in a journal or codex, or just have Dwarvin’s “On the Origin of the Species” lying around in the tutorial area for me to pick up and peruse at my leisure.
      The funny thing is it’s something of a common mistake newbie GM’s tend to make when they’re convinced their unique take on whatever setting you happen to be playing in is awesome and brilliant, so they insist on trying to push just how unique and awesome and brilliant it is by emphasising this to the players at every possible opportunity.

    • malkav11 says:

      I think character creation could probably have been handled more deftly, but in general I agree that I love how much detail Pillars puts into the game world, and it’s mostly tremendously interesting to me. Particularly the gods of the setting and how nuanced, removed from traditional good-vs-evil dichotomies and active in the setting they are. And while some of it’s just color (basically, the stuff about some of the regions you don’t encounter in the game), a lot of it is relevant to what you’re doing, whether it be the local politics you’re dealing with along the way, or the machinations of the gods, or agents from other countries, or mythology that becomes unexpectedly important to present-day quests, in ways that can shape your approach to things if you’re paying attention.

    • Ghostwise says:

      A few thoughts :
      – A lot of the old-school CRPG designers were old school nerds. These often loved lore and spent their childhood poring over Tolkien songs and history and myths.
      – So they tend to see lore dumps as a good thing.
      – But this is difficult to do right. Since being an old school RPG geek doesn’t automatically make you a good writer (far from it).
      – So there were many examples of writing failures.
      – Furthermore, by the 1990s the CRPGs and CRPG-lite audience grew well beyond the tiny population of old-school RPG geeks.
      – And generally, these people don’t like reading reams of abstruse stuff as much as old-school geeks. Or even just reading a lot.
      – Therefore, we need pie. QED.

  6. Wulfram says:

    I think a lot of the problem with the PoE character creation text is that it feels the need to tell the player about the whole setting. I wonder if it couldn’t be improved by changing the order a bit and then only presenting what is really relevant to the character being created. So if you’re Vailian, then the text about elves would only tell you about how elves get on in Vailia, and then you’d learn about gender among the elves of Vailia, rather than feeling the need to sum up the whole world. Starting with the player choosing their culture would fit with the tone of the setting too, which places quite a heavy emphasis on it.

    In other words, you might want to write more words but show them to the player more selectively.

  7. Infinitron says:

    The lead designer of Pillars of Eternity responded to that post: link to jesawyer.tumblr.com

  8. Furiant says:

    I say this with some regret and maybe embarrassment, but I simply don’t read much lore anymore. I used to. I’d immerse myself and learn the names, places, relations; try to see the sprawling picture. Filling my head with all this knowledge that becomes useless after the game is over.

    And usually it didn’t really help me play the game any better. In fact, I was often frustrated by how little it mattered whether I knew the lore, because the more banal game mechanics and limitations didn’t allow me to make use of it in any significant way. I realized I had been learning the lore in order to compensate for the relatively simplistic experience of a video game — trying to make it something more than it was.

    Once I stopped caring about lore, the experience became shallower yet less frustrating; I didn’t feel like I was wasting my time.

    I really do appreciate how much work goes into the writing for many games. It’s truly impressive. I just no longer have the energy and passion required to consume it all.

    Getting older has made learning new stuff more of an effort (for me), and I tend to weigh it against its practical value more now. If I can really grok one new thing this week, it’s probably not going to be the history of some ancient elven religious rite.

  9. Von Uber says:

    As a father with two young girls, can someone remind me what a lie-in is? I have heard tales of such a thing told to me by those both richer in money and time.

    • fuggles says:

      I know this one, it’s a large yellow cat – I’ve read about it in children’s rhyming books. I vaguely remember computer games, someone may need to refresh me as it’s been some years.

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