Taking the Video Out of the Game

Looking through the historical progression of games, there seems to be a fairly smooth path that points towards video games being the current end point. This makes sense considering that video games and VR are the peak of gaming technology, but what about the games that go back in time? As an avid board game player, I wanted to take a look at some of the great video games that have expanded their reach into the realm of tabletop play. Are the games any good and why are they made?

Let’s start off with what is arguably the most popular video game-board game transition, which is Dark Souls The Board Game. Initially a Kickstarter project, the game hit its target in 3 minutes and ultimately raised over $4,000,000. For those of you who don’t know much about Dark Souls (the actual video game) it was released in 2011 to much critical acclaim and commercial success. While it could be frustratingly difficult for players, there is an intricate lore, great mechanics, and an open world platform that allows for so many different strategic maneuvers. Turning back to the board game, it actually held up pretty well against the original video game. There were interestingly layered game mechanics, high end design, and of course mercilessly unforgiving combat.

dark souls memeWhere things get interesting is how this game helps Dark Souls make the transition from spiteful multiplayer video game to a collaborative and hopefully fun for all video game. In the video game the player-relationship is complex as everyone has similar common goals, but they can also take over another player’s human form by killing them. By changing the board game to be completely collaborative Dark Souls developers FromSoftware are potentially trying to take away some of the negative impressions players are left with after playing Dark Souls. The board game serves as an avenue to build a stronger community around Dark Souls, which would ultimately lead to more players and game play.

dark souls board gameWhile it’s nice to think about a lot of the community and “for the sake of the game” aspects of expansion into board games, the bottomline is of course going to be money. Particularly with games that achieve massive success, a board game is a quick way to make some easy cash. For this we turn to the lamest of all video game iterations, the Monopoly edition. Don’t take this as a sign of me bashing Monopoly, it’s probably the first game I really loved playing and I still playing with some regularity even today. The point I am trying to make is that some game companies simply opt to get lazy when making the transition to board games and that’s not at all exciting for fans of the game. Just to name a few there is Zelda Monopoly, Fallout Monopoly, and Mass Effect Monopoly. While I am sure that these all sold a few copies, none brought another dimension to the original video game, doing little if anything to make the experience worthwhile for fans of the original game.

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At the end of the day it’s easy to tell, which game companies are really looking to provide something new and exciting for their fan base. Some video games such as BioShock, Assassin’s Creed, and Dark Souls have provided an opportunity to expand upon gameplay and grow the fandom and community. On the other hand countless video game makers have come out with board games that provide little other than funding, or just simply aren’t good games. So before making that transition from the screen to your kitchen table be sure to do a little bit of research as a great video game doesn’t always translate to a great board game.

  • Sam Grossman
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Seveneves: The Role-Playing Game!

 

[featured image taken from https://www.nealstephenson.com/news/2015/05/26/seveneves-site/%5D

When you were a kid, did you ever play those games where you would look up to the sky and imagine the clouds as bunnies, dragons, or anything in between? Did you ever play the ever-popular “the floor is lava” game? If so, fantastic, because as a kid you’re sort of expected to have an active imagination. But why does this expectation fade over time? What about “growing up” means that you have to lose your creativity? Well, we believe there is absolutely no reason for that imagination to wane, and in this blog post we’d like to suggest a fun way to keep your inner kid alive and well.

It’s called a role-playing game (RPG for short), and you may have heard about more popular ones, like Dungeons & Dragons, as there has been a resurgence of interest following the use of this particular RPG in popular culture (think Stranger Things). We made an RPG that was a combination of Dungeons & Dragons, Stars Without Number (a sci-fi RPG), and Seveneves (a science fiction book by Neal Stephenson). Ours may not be the best RPG out there, but if anything we hope this blog post shows you how, without enough time and thinking, anybody can have a great time making and playing an RPG.

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The idea of the RPG is one that has been solely rooted in the fantasy genre, and by association, the wider genre of romance, something that we have discussed at length in this class. The RPG brings together a group of people, often with varying skills and interests that offset each other, with a shared goal. There is usually some form of quest, self-redemption, or self-revelation that occurs, and because RPGs are more focused on player character development than most other forms of interactive media that we discussed, we thought it best to use to remediate a science fiction novel. Additionally, we both have years of experience playing role-playing games such as D&D and Pathfinder, and have planned our own campaigns before as well as played personal characters in others. All of those campaigns were solely in the fantasy genre, however, so if we were going to make a science fiction RPG, we would have to do a little research.

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The first order of business was understanding the book in which we were basing our RPG. Internet synopses can tell you more than we can here, but this is the gist: the moon was destroyed by an unknown “Agent,” and in the two years before the moon rocks crash to Earth and destroy everything, humanity stashes itself in space to return thousands of years later as collection of seven races, stemming from the seven fertile women who survived in space. You can see more contextual information later in the post and in our notes, or if you’re really invested you can even read the book. The point is this book was perfect for creating a sci-fi RPG.

Furthermore, we scoured the Internet for tips and resources on how to make a sci-fi RPG. From Googling those exact words to thumbing through Reddit threads, we took a few days to amass as many ideas as possible. We settled on the system Stars Without Number, as this RPG system was freely available and seemed to be quite well developed for our purposes. Specifically, this system did a great job at reframing D&D classes into various jobs and skills that were more suitable for life in space, rather than a fantasy world, and the system itself was flexible enough to modify.

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Why would we need to modify the system? Well, our goal for this project was to develop a “one-shot” game, or an RPG that is meant to be played in a single session rather than in a multiple-session campaign. With this in mind, our primary concern was providing the players enough time to explore the world we were creating. We easily adjusted the mechanics for making skill checks to be less based on players stats and more based on intent and narration. In more practical terms, players could essentially do whatever they wished without all the role-playing and messing about that takes time, so the Game Master (GM) could provide more narration about the environment. It worked out pretty well, as you can see in the videos we’ve placed here and throughout the post.

There are many other mechanical considerations you have to make when planning an RPG. Where is the game set? What is the history of this setting? What is society like? What maps do you need to make? Who might the players encounter, and what will that encounter look like? Is there a point system? Since we based our game on the world of Seveneves, we had a lot of the contextual questions taken care of already. We answered the RPG-specific questions, and you can see our notes in the Google document link in this post later on. The doc can speak for itself, but we’d like to briefly elaborate on the point system, which we developed from the ground up. Normally “points” in the RPG world are experience points that accumulate to level up the player. However, we used “assets” as a way of measuring how well the players were forming bonds with the species on Old Earth, and so whichever team (Red or Blue) had the most assets by identifying and succeeding in more opportunities by the end of the session won.

We gathered up some of our friends to play a short one-shot on a Monday. In RPG terms, a “one-shot” is usually a game or storyline that takes one or two sessions to finish (as opposed to usual longer story arcs in regular play). We planned on filming the session to use in our presentation, so we wanted to have every possible race represented. Our friend Penn played an Ivyn engineer, Jacob played a Camite priest, Nick played a Julian aspiring politician, Jamz played a Moiran biologist, Ethan played a Teklan transport specialist, Jordan played a Dinan astronavigator, or “astrogator,” and Matthew played an Aïdan technician. Torie acted as the “GM,” or the Game Master, who essentially narrates the campaign and prompts the players to make various “checks” in order to see if they successfully complete the actions they wish to perform.

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The plot itself was simple: each of the player characters had been gathered as part of a co-racial mission from an orbiting space station around the Earth to explore a newly terraformed surface and investigate for human life. You can read more about it here. You can also see the racial traits and backgrounds we provided for our player characters to choose from. In our game, which lasted about three hours (typical for a standard RPG session, at least for us), our group encountered a race of humans that had adapted to living underwater for over 5,000 years that the orbiting population nicknamed the “Pingers,” after the sonar-esque transmissions they intercepted from their society. While at first a little hostile, our group managed to curtail the growing violence and managed to establish good terms with a group of Pingers. (Here is a video of their “first contact”). They shared technological knowledge and made some vague promises at treaties with military leaders, and were pointed to the underground race of humans (“Diggers”) to assist them in repairing their broken communications device.  

As a player character, or PC, I found the sci-fi context fascinating. Personally, I’ve always loved engaging with any media from this genre; though everything is scientific and futuristic, it’s still all imagined and possible, so it makes me feel optimistically youthful. For this game, we had a mix of rambunctious and withdrawn players, so that made the three hours we played pass with much entertainment. I was in the unusual position of being a quasi-GM, meaning that I was privy to everything that might happen in the game, but I still had to engage as a player who did not know these things. Thus, I found myself motivating the players to pursue various paths that I knew would keep the action in the game flowing. I wish we had had more time to thoroughly explore the world that we had created, but that’s just the nature of a one-shot game.

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As a GM, Torie found that there was a lot of the story that she did not prepare for. Unfortunately, only one member of the group besides us had actually read Seveneves ( a couple of them did read it after the session, though!), and this proved to be a bit of a problem when Torie ended up killing a lot of game time explaining background situations and mechanics of the players’ society and objects to them. Both of us (Torie and Matthew) have been Game Masters for our own games before, and while Torie had over twenty pages of GM notes, we both knew that planning a successful campaign and story took a much longer amount of time than a single month. Even with the most careful planning, though, the fun of RPGs is that the players make their own decisions, which means that there is always something happening that the GM has zero plans for. Torie expected this, and because of it, was able to work mostly successfully with the players’ wishes as they went. We were hoping to have contact with both the Diggers and the Pingers in this, but, after three hours, the group had only made it to the Pingers, and we decided to call it a night. (This is common with our experience as GMs and players, stories always take a little longer to tell/roleplay than you think they will). 

In conclusion, we loved the opportunity to take something we both love to do as a hobby and integrating it with the themes that we have learned in ENGL 3726 with Professor Clayton at Vanderbilt. We have both grown up with these “new” forms of media that we have discussed in class, and have been fans of the fantasy and sci-fi genres since childhood. Being able to put those together in this new creation was a really satisfying culmination of these themes for us, and we know that our friends enjoyed playing through the story with us as well.

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Learning to Play

For full effect, please play this.

A lot of people have games that they consider integral parts of their childhood.  As we have discussed in class, for a lot of people this game was Pokemon.  For others, Super Mario Bros or the Zelda series were the cornerstones in their gaming careers.  For me, that game was Morrowind.

For those who are not familiar with Morrowind, it is the third game in The Elder Scrolls series, and the first that was (and still is) widely discussed online.  The Elder Scrolls games are a set of fantasy RPG’s with immersive lore, a fully fleshed out game world, and multiple races (based on, but not copying, standard RPG races) you could play as.  Released by Bethesda in 2002, Morrowind served as a bridge between the first two games, which were both incredibly hard and not very user friendly, and the last two games, which, while still occasionally challenging, adopted standard RPG aids like a compass and quest markers.  Instead of these, Morrowind had a quest journal the player can consult, but besides that must find their way to quests through good old directions given by NPC’s.  As such, this seems like a very odd game for a young teenager like myself, especially one not well versed in games, to choose.

An example of the stunning graphics Morrowind had to offer.  Source

I think the reason Morrowind, and for that matter gaming in general, ended up being so important to me was because it represented time I got to spend with my father.  My dad was in the military, so he was sometimes deployed for months at a time and frequently called away to meetings for a few days at a time.  As such, I didn’t really get to spend as much time with him as I would have liked.  However, when he was home, one of the things we loved to do together was for him to play a game and for me and my twin sister to watch him play it.  I know it sounds like kind of a weird thing to do, but since he loved lore-heavy RPGs like Morrowind it was kind of like watching a really, really long movie where you could kind of, sort of convince the main character to do what you wanted him to do.

I’m sure we made quite the picture: a gruff army man sitting in his chair, staring intently at the computer he was playing on, with two excitable children bouncing around behind him, telling him to go do this quest or go talk to this person.  Eventually, however, just watching my dad play these games wasn’t really enough for me.  I wanted to play these games for myself.

Ironically, as a kid I wasn’t really allowed to play too many video games, and my parents (mainly my mom) weren’t about to support a possible gaming habit by buying me a console (Luckily, they later changed their minds).  As such, instead of the child-friendly Nintendo games many grew up with, I ended up mostly playing old PC games that my dad was done with on our family computer.  This is where I truly fell in love with Morrowind.

The beautiful character creation screen found in Morrowind. Source

When I first started playing Morrowind, I had absolutely no clue what I was doing.  The good thing was I didn’t need to. Vvardenfell, an island that makes up the majority of the province of Morrowind and the main setting of the game, was so immersive that I was simply content to wander around, talking to literally everyone I saw and generally getting nothing done. In all honesty, I had probably created at least two or three characters, starting over the game each time, before I even left the starting city of Seyda Neen.

Seyda Neen wasn’t exactly a big town… Source

Once I got into it, though, I really got into it.  Because even my tiny child self was a completionist, I tried to get every single side quest in the game done, ignoring the main quest in the process.  I wandered from town to town, joining all of the guilds and collecting all of the quests, dying frequently and leveling up in a way that hardcore gamers would probably have cringed at.  I never did finish the main quest line, but that didn’t really matter to me.  What mattered was that my character, and by extension me, really felt like a part of that world, a world that was shared by both me and my father.

Morrowind is still one of my favorite games, and I feel like I would not have developed as much as a love for RPG’s as I have without it.  In all honesty, writing this while listening to its awesome soundtrack has made me really want to play it again, but this time actually try to beat it.  What about you guys-what games would you consider to be an integral part of your childhood?  Why do you think that is?  Thank you for reading and I look forward to reading your comments below!

What’s wrong with gaming?

For several years now, video games have been a useful stress-relieving component of my life.  Between school, sports, and dramatic friends it can be very difficult to feel in control of your life. Video games provide an outlet where one can can express oneself in a way that ordinary society does not allow. Role playing games are especially useful for this, whether they be set in a fantasy land or in everyday life, or even within a sports game. But if video games could be so useful to kids and adults alike, then what’s wrong with them, and why do people seem to have such a problem with “the gamer?”

In my life, I have never truly been discouraged from playing video games, although I must admit that it was not encouraged either. Occasionally I was chastised for playing Call of Duty instead of, say, mowing the lawn, but nothing atypical in the way of parental control. I have also been lucky to have friends that also enjoy video games, and even my girlfriend has an XBOX Live gamertag. But as I said, I am lucky to know such people that are very accommodating of the gamer in me, when many are not so fortunate. So why are people against gaming?

Quite simply, I believe that it boils down to a misunderstanding of the purpose of video games for many people. I would argue that a majority of people, especially of older generations, see video games as nothing but a waste of time and energy. However, the skills that children gain while playing video games, such as problem solving skills, quick reflexes, the ability to process multiple information sources at the same time, and the experience of cooperating with other players in-game are all valuable life skills that will translate into various other areas. Some will always disagree, but the results of gaming as a child will only become more clear with time.

What’s the deal with LOTRO cutscenes?

by Theo Dentchev

LOTRO starts off with some beautiful looking graphics, and a cutscene in which Gandalf sits at a fire smoking some pipeweed, telling you a story. Good stuff right?

And then you start playing the game.

In the first cutscene you encounter you’re most likely going to miss at least the first few lines of dialogue before you even realize that you’re in a cut scene. Why, you ask? Because the “cutscene” is just in game characters with text above their heads or in the text box at the bottom left of the screen. Don’t get me wrong, the in game graphics are really nice, great colors, good animations. But they’re in game graphics. Would it have been too much to ask for some cinema-like cutscenes? Or at least some sound instead of having to read dialogue. I mean, using in game graphics makes it so that at times it is difficult to notice immediately that someone else has started talking, and by the time you look to see the text above their head they’re already on to the next sentence. You could of course look at the text box in the bottom left, but then you miss whatever limited visual action might be going on. All in all this provides for a relatively poor form of storytelling.

Then again, maybe I’m just biased. I’m not quite old enough to have experienced the text based rpgs of the early days of gaming. In fact, the issue of my age is compounded by the fact that I didn’t really start playing video games (outside of pokemon on the gameboy color) until 2003 – very recently. And even then I didn’t really play rpgs as much as I did action-adventure games. So I am accustomed to playing games where the cutscenes are cinematic and the characters actually talk. I guess both styles of story telling (cinematic cutscenes and in game cutscenes) provide the same information, and you could understand the story equally well either way, but the presentation makes a huge difference. I will be better able to appreciate a story which I can enjoy and which is easy to follow.

I’m no game designer and have no idea of how difficult it must be, but would it really be that much harder to incorporate cinematic cutscenes into MMOs? Even if it is harder than doing for console games, games like LOTRO are supposed to have a strong focus on storytelling, so wouldn’t it be worth the effort to tell the story better? It would enhance the entire experience of the game, making it more immersing and engaging.

– TD

P.S I just realized that I haven’t gotten very far into the game, and it is still entirely possible there will be other cinematic cutscenes in the future. However, I still condemn the lack of such cutscenes in general, and the use of in game cutscenes instead.