PAX East 2015: Gigantic

A screenshot from Gigantic showing a black woman with a huge fur collar aiming down a crossbow scope.I have no idea why people aren’t raving about this game.

Let me back up a second. Going into PAX East this year, my partner had Gigantic–an upcoming free-to-play MOBA-ish 5v5 online competitive game made by Motiga–pegged as the game he was most interested in checking out at the show. He showed me some trailers, and I was intrigued, but skeptical. It looked beautiful and the characters were striking. But an online competitive game? Not really my thing.

Sunday morning of PAX, he finally convinced me to give it a shot on the show floor. We waited in line for maybe 40 minutes, and then were placed in a match with another couple and a Community Coach, against four other PAX attendees and their own coach. I picked the cute little wizard goblin to play as, and the match began.

We lost pretty badly, but it was so incredibly fun that I didn’t even care. The game is fast, playing almost like a third-person shooter with an emphasis on movement, although each character has a very different role and play style. The twist with this game is that each team has a huge creature called a Guardian on its team. Each team starts out trying to control points on the map and kill other players. Doing this increases your Guardian’s power. When the power meter is full, the Guardian goes on a rampage, stomping across the map to the other team’s Guardian. Your team needs to escort your Guardian to the other end of the map, where it attacks the other team’s Guardian, causing it to be stunned. Then, you are free to wail on the other team’s Guardian. The goal of the game is to knock out the other team’s Guardian.

The combination of the beautiful art, fun and interesting characters, and strategic team-based play added up to something immediately appealing. Even though I’m not a competitive person, and I prefer co-op to competitive games, I found that the teamwork skills I had honed in games like Final Fantasy XI, Guild Wars 2, and even Uncharted horde mode helped me out a lot. Additionally, MOBAs are notoriously inaccessible, and while Gigantic has some complexities–you level up in the middle of a match and choose both passive upgrades and skill upgrades, like other MOBAs–it’s also pretty easy to just jump in. I was able to wail away on enemies and even get a few kills just using my main attack (mapped to the left mouse button), and once I started to get used to using Q, E, and F for the other skills, I found myself being able to pop into a battle, cause some chaos, and escape fairly skillfully. I was able to play two more matches that day, and at each one I played better and better, despite choosing different characters each time.

But the thing that has me really raving about the game to anyone who will listen is the female characters. Out of the 16 heroes revealed so far, 7 are women or girls (and two are genderless: a robot and an agender swashbuckler named Tyto). Not just that, the variety found in the female characters is just fantastic. The character at the top of this post is Imani, a sniper with a truly amazing fashion sense. The goblin wizard I played in the first match is named Mozo, and she’s a girl!

A screenshot of Gigantic showing Mozo, a goblin wizard with pointy hat and green robes.Other companies or artists would insist on giving her long hair or a bow or pink robes so that you know for certain she’s a girl, but Mozo shows that that’s just not necessary. You can have a female character that isn’t necessarily feminized.

There’s also a badass grandma witch named Griselma–when do you ever see female characters over the age of 30 in games?

A screenshot from Gigantic showing Griselma, a tiny old lady, leaping into the air, surrounded by strange creatures.On the other end of the spectrum is Aisling, a little girl with a big ol’ sword who can summon the ghost of her dad.

A screenshot from Gigantic of Aisling, a 10-yr-old girl with white hair, an oversized coat, and a huge sword. A large ghost soldier floats behind her.

There’s also Xenobia, a creepy tentacle witch who can drain health; Tripp, a deadly lightning assassin; and Vadasi, a four-armed goddess of judgement who smites her enemies and heals allies. The fact that there are such a variety of female characters that are created to be appealing to everyone and not just straight men makes the game so welcoming to me. It’s obvious the developers want players to want to be these women and girls and female-creatures, not just ogle them.

All the characters in the game have such clear designs and instant personality. And it’s not just set dressing; the designs combine so well with the characters skills that it makes the game that much more fun to play. When I played Mozo I really felt like I was a zany wizard bopping around the field zapping people; when I played Voden, I felt like a lord of the forest, dashing from battle to battle poisoning enemies and protecting our Guardian. It’s all of these components together that make the game instantly special to me and one that I’m looking forward to following its development.

For more about character design in Gigantic, check out:
Mike Williams’s interview with artist Joe Pikop (USGamer.net)
Motiga’s PAX South panel on Hero design (YouTube)

All screenshots are from Gigantic’s official website.

Inquisition Offers an Evolution of the “Difficult Choice”

A screenshot of Warden Alistair in the Fade in DAI.

Warden Alistair in DAI via dragonagefluff.tumblr.com

There’s been a nice discussion on game crit Twitter this week about that perennial topic, choices and consequences in Dragon Age, spurred on by two great articles: one by Rowan Kaiser at Unwinnable, and the second by Austin Walker at Paste Games. Rowan’s piece is about how most players won’t see Dragon Age Inquisition‘s toughest choice, and that the game overall pulls its punches when forcing the player to make difficult, emotional choices.

The choice Rowan is referring to is during the “Here Lies the Abyss” mission, where depending on the player’s world state, the player may have to choose between sacrificing Hawke or Alistair. His argument is that DAI should have had more choices like this, but where all the players experienced the same emotional investment. I agree with Rowan that the situation is bullshit, but I completely disagree with why.

It is indeed unfair that the choice is only difficult for a certain minority of players. It happened in my first playthrough of the game, and it made me very angry. Bioware has stated in the past that most players make Alistair king; in fact, the most likely reason for Alistair to remain a Warden is if a female PC romanced him in Origins. Basically, this story step disproportionately affects female fans, targeting us for emotional turmoil in a way that most other players would not experience (it’s particularly bad if your Warden is still alive and looking for a cure for the taint).

But the solution isn’t to make the choice equally wrenching for all players: the solution is to do away with these sorts of “Choose who lives and who dies” situations completely. That narrative design was groundbreaking in 2007, when the first Mass Effect came out, and players were forced to choose between saving Ashley or Kaiden. That kind of decision had not happened in AAA prior to then. But in 2014, players are swimming in games with “gotcha” choices, choices purposely designed to cause the gnashing of teeth, some better-executed than others (all of which can be found in Telltale’s recent games, for example, particularly The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us).

Austin’s column breaks down what people mean when they talk about “meaningful” choices in games. It’s a great piece that tackles a long-running peeve of mine when the topic comes up, and talks about issues larger than just DAI. But the part that struck me was the ending: “The point is to answer the question. What do you value?” This gets to the heart of what makes choices in games meaningful. It’s another reason the Hawke/Whoever choice at the end of “Here Lies the Abyss” is crap: to the Inquisitor, both characters are two people she has just met no matter who they are. The choice doesn’t give the player the opportunity to express something about their character’s values or what kind of leader she is; it’s only about being mean to the player.

The question “What do you value?” also sums up why the choices in DAI are so interesting and often difficult to me in a way I had not been able to pin down. DAI is largely about leadership and faith. It lets the player make choices about what kind of leader your character is and what she believes and express those values; those moments are the most difficult, interesting, and meaningful choices in the game, whether they result in world state changes or not, and many of them are found in the companion quests.

In the Iron Bull’s companion quest, a situation arises where the Inquisitor has to choose between sacrificing Bull’s team, the Chargers, or sacrificing an entire dreadnaught of Qunari troops. What makes the situation complicated is that saving the dreadnaught means securing a powerful alliance with the Qunari for the Inquisition (for the purpose of saving the world from Corypheus); saving the Chargers destroys any chance of an alliance with the Qunari and would make Bull Tal-Vashoth–basically, an outcast from the Qun (a concept Bull has a lot of complicated feelings about). Is the Inquisitor willing to sacrifice a few people for the greater good? What kind of leader is she? What does she value?

Cole’s big companion quest involves dealing with his past trauma and his essential nature. The Inquisitor can push him either to become more like a spirit or more like a human. Solas and Varric argue for each choice, respectively. It raises a lot of questions to the player. What are spirits, really, and is being a human inherently better than being a spirit? Would making Cole more of a spirit make him less of a person? Is it only humans who have humanity? What does the Inquisitor value?

One of the most difficult choices in the game, for me, happened in the Solas romance storyline, which is only available to female elf Inquisitors and therefore a minority of players. Near the end, Solas reveals the true meaning behind the Dalish elf’s face tattoos: they were originally slave markings, from when elves enslaved other elves. The Inquisitor can let Solas remove hers, or she can keep them. Does the knowledge of their origin taint them? Or are they a part of her and important to her, no matter what their original meaning? What does she believe?

Those are just a few examples. The player gets many chances to express disbelief, indifference, or buy into the Maker and the story of being Andraste’s Herald. And there are also the dozen-or-so judgments, where the Inquisitor is put in charge of sentencing prisoners who have committed wrongs of varying degrees. What’s a just punishment for a man who tortured and destroyed people for Corypheus: execution, imprisonment, exile, Tranquility? How about a woman who did monstrous things because she thought she was saving the world? Or the man throwing goats at the castle walls? What do these decisions say about the Inquisitor as a leader and the Inquisition as an institution?

Complicating all of this are the beliefs and values of the companions, who can approve or disapprove of any actions that you take. As relationships form between the player/Inquisitor and the companions, she begins to take into account their points of view. What will Cassandra think of me if I choose to disband the templars? Am I giving enough consideration to the regular people, as Sera constantly reminds me?

The best part is, some of these decisions aren’t actually going to be difficult for some players. Some players will feel so strongly one way or the other that it doesn’t seem like a real choice. I have read posts from players saying they would never, ever sacrifice the Chargers, or make Cole become a spirit. That doesn’t diminish what makes these choices meaningful, either for those particular players or for the game as a piece of art–it shows that the game is truly engaging with players’ beliefs and values, or at least those that they bestow upon their Inquisitors.

The Bioware writers pit has earned the nickname “emotional hooligans,” and they are known for messing with players’ emotions and throwing gut-punches. It’s true that DAI had fewer of those than past Dragon Age games (I jokingly reviewed the game on twitter as, “Not completely emotionally destroyed, 8/10, try harder next time”), but the solution isn’t to add cheap shots at the player like choosing which character to sacrifice. Overall, DAI moved choices in games forward by taking a less manipulative and more interesting approach, and I’m interested to see where the team goes from here.

Guild Wars 2‘s Living Story So Far

A screenshot from Guild Wars 2 showing Braham, a male Norn, on the left, and Rox, a female charr, on the right in the foreground.

The first major arc of Guild Wars 2’s Living Story just completed and transitioned into the next segment, so I thought I would take a look at what’s worked so far.

If you don’t play GW2, the concept of the Living Story is that, rather than end the story of the world with instanced personal story missions, more storylines are added to the persistent game world–sort of like the holiday events, but not holiday-themed and having a lasting effect on the world. The idea is for it to be “sort of like your favorite TV show,” that players want to check in on regularly to catch up with characters and the development of the world.

I am completely in favor of video games taking cues from the TV format. Like TV, games allow us to spend dozens of hours with a cast of characters and the world they live in, allowing for deep characterization, extensive world building, and lengthy character arcs. Kirk Hamilton wrote about how the TV-like format Mass Effect 2 really worked, and I’m really interested to see what other aspects of TV big games can borrow.

The storyline itself is interesting so far, introducing new characters like Eir’s son, Braham, and an awesome (but weirdly cartoon-eyed) female Charr named Rox. And even though the next chapter of the story has moved from the snowy mountains into a tropical paradise, it is continuing the story of the refugees displaced by the events of Flame and Frost.

So far, the living story has definitely kept me coming back to Guild Wars 2. After playing through beta weekends and launch, I took a long break from the game late last year, and came back during the tail end of the Wintersday event. With new things to discover every few weeks, playing never started to feel boring or repetitive.

More importantly, the living story events make GW2 feel like GW2 at launch, when everyone was low level and taking their first steps into the world. Leveling a character now or just doing map completion, you’ll notice that most of the maps are rather empty. I don’t usually mind the solitude–it’s peaceful, and trying to take down that veteran or complete that group event on your own is a fun challenge–but it does make completing certain events unnecessarily difficult and fighting bosses downright impossible. But both the living story and the area-specific daily achievements funnel players into certain areas, making the game feel like its old self again. The current living story content is located in the Southsun Cove map, and playing there after the update on Tuesday was a revelation. There were tons of other players, and events happening everywhere. If I get into a jam, there’s always someone around to help out. It’s easy to get a group to take on a Champion enemy. I love doing dungeon and fractal runs with my guild, and hopping into WvW, but it’s great to once again play the persistent world PvE as it’s meant to be played.

FFXI DATs

A long long time ago, I was a DAT modder for FFXI. At one point I was actually spending more time making DAT mods than playing the game. And I know there was a brief time where I had unsubscribed from the game but kept making mods. It was a lot of fun and quite rewarding, is what I’m saying.

If you don’t know, all the resources for FFXI were stored in .dat files. Someone had created a program that let you take those files and extract the textures, alpha maps, and meshes from them, edit those files, and put everything back together. Replacing one DAT file with another allowed you to change what that model looked like in-game. Being a huge fan of playing dress-up in games, I was totally charmed by being able to make armor sets that looked cool to me without having a level restriction. These mods were technically against the TOS, but since they were just armor swaps they didn’t actually let you cheat or anything.

I originally uploaded my DATs to some kind of file sharing site, from which they have since been removed, and submitted them to FFXIDATs.com, a site that sadly no longer exists. But I had such a great time and I loved the community there. I learned a lot about 3D modeling and game assets. I recently found an old USB stick on which I had backed up all my DAT mods, so I thought it would be fun to share them with the world.

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HAX Hint System

I made a hint system in Twine for my game HAX. I know I made a couple of the puzzles a little bit too obscure, and some of the comments on the Free Indie Games post about it mentioned the two in particular that I was concerned about. So here is a handy hint system that covers every puzzle in the game, as well as the secret room, and a simple HTML table map. Each puzzle has two or three hints before giving you the full solution. The links are orange because it reminded me of those hint books for old games where you used a highlighter to reveal the answer.

I tested it, but if there are any problems with links or if I missed something, please let me know. I hope this helps!

HAX Hint System