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.

Style Savvy’s Fashion Limitations

A screenshot from Style Savvy Trendsetters. It shows a woman with long black hair and a thoughtful expression in a shop. The text box reads, Maybe what I need is... something... with an edgy kind of feel to it.

I’ve borrowed a 3DS and have been playing Style Savvy: Trendsetters, the sequel to the 2009 DS game Style Savvy. They are both fashion games that are part business sim: players take on the role of a manager of a fashion boutique and are tasked with picking out items for customers according to their taste and keeping the store stocked. With these two elements, the game combines strategy with creativity in a fresh way. A customer will come in and ask for, say, a bold shirt, and if the player picks a shirt of that taste, the customer will buy it, adding funds to the shop, which the player then use to buy more stock. Customers will often ask for entire outfits in a certain style, or if the player puts together a good outfit on her window mannequin, someone will buy the entire thing. That’s the creative part. The strategy part comes in when the player heads to the buyer’s center to stock up on items. There are a number of brands in different styles, and the player needs to decide which items will best meet her customers’ needs. Trendsetters is different from the original in that it adds men’s fashion, a slightly creepier art style as far as faces are concerned, and 3D.

I enjoy both games a lot, and yet there’s also something deeply limiting about them. Items in the game have a number of different attributes, but the most important are brand and taste, which are related. There’s an edgy brand, a gothic lolita brand, a pop brand, a preppy brand, an athletic brand. So when someone comes in asking for a pop t-shirt, the player just looks for the Mint Sprinkles brand and the customer will be all over it. In the original game, the player had to memorize which brand was which (most were obvious, but some were less so), but Trendsetters adds the ability to search the shop inventory based on any number of factors, including brand and taste, which are separate. In the sequel, if someone asks for bold pants, but the shop doesn’t have anything from the bold brand, AZ USA, something from the edgy brand Stage Dive may do.

So there’s a little more freedom this time around, but it still doesn’t quite capture what’s fun about fashion, which is putting together an outfit with unexpected combinations that somehow totally work, or combining styles that balance each other out. In the world of Style Savvy, only the expected is allowed. Successful outfits generally mean dressing head-to-toe in a specific brand. My favorite kind of outfit is to mix girly dresses with tough boots, jackets, and accessories, but in the game, that would be fashion blasphemy. You can’t mix Stage Dive and Cantata Modo! That’s just ridiculous!

But in the real world of fashion, rules are made to be broken. Traditional rules like “don’t pair brown and black” just don’t hold any more. But I’m a programmer, I know how computers work, and computers need hard and fast rules. A computer can’t judge something as subjective as style (not yet, anyway). So unless a game is purely creative, there are going to be these limitations. I don’t fault Style Savvy for having those limitations; after all, it does quite a good job of making the player feel like a boutique manager within them. But I can’t help wishing that the game gave the player a bit more freedom to mix things up, to create something unexpected.

A fate that we deserve: Choice, Triumph, and All That Remains

“When he read to me–stupid things, dragons and heroes–he wouldn’t turn a page until I reached over and took his hand. That big man made every step of the story my choice. I loved that.” — Aveline, regarding her father

(Dragon Age 2 spoilers)

Continue reading

Forget all that you know

The change party screen in DA2: Hawke and his seven companions stand on a black background.

The change party screen in DA2: Hawke and his seven companions stand on a black background.

Of all the changes to the Dragon Age series implemented in the recently-released sequel, the improvements to the conversation system and the companions’ relationships are the most interesting. They take a bit of getting used to at first, especially if you’ve played other BioWare games–between the Mass Effect games and Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare has trained us for dozens of hours about how dialogue wheels and relationship meters work, but in Dragon Age 2 they’ve changed things up–and it’s fantastic.

First, the dialogue wheel. DA2’s wheel looks the same as Mass Effect‘s and is organized similarly, with questions on the left and options to move the conversation forward on the right, but that’s where the similarities end. ME’s is split between the Paragon response to any given situation on the top, the Renegade response on the bottom, and a neutral response in the middle. The way the Paragon/Renegade system works encourages the player to stick with either the top or the bottom response throughout the entire game, since additional options are unlocked at high enough Paragon or Renegade points. While playing ME, I found myself missing entire lines of dialogue because I was zoning out and just picking “the top line” (as Twyst describes it) every time the little wheel popped up.

But that shit doesn’t fly in DA2. After deciding that my first character–Tarin Hawke, mage–was a generally diplomatic sort, I found myself slipping into my ME habits, picking the top line without much thought. It was when Tarin uncharacteristically shrugged off her friend using a bit of blood magic that I realized what was happening. If one falls into the habit of always picking the same spot on the wheel, one will inevitably say something that doesn’t make any sense, either in-character or sometimes even within one conversation; in Anders’s Act 2 companion quest, for example, always choosing the bottom option will have Hawke getting indignant on his behalf only to say she won’t help him.

Zel Hawke speaks with Anders. The subtitle reads, 'It goes against the will of the Maker for mages to live as free as other men'. The dialogue wheel at the bottom has three options: 'Mages need their freedom,' 'That's a little controversial', and 'Mages must be contained.'

Zel Hawke speaks with Anders. The subtitle reads, 'It goes against the will of the Maker for mages to live as free as other men'. The dialogue wheel at the bottom has three options: 'Mages need their freedom,' 'That's a little controversial', and 'Mages must be contained.'

The dialogue wheel in DA2 may look like ME’s wheel, but it has much more in common with the lists of responses in the original Dragon Age; most of the changes have to do with giving the player more information. The dialogue wheel has icons that tell the player what tone the response will have, or if the response is part of a romance storyline, or if it’s based on special information, or if it’s a request for more information, or if Hawke is lying, or if it’s a branching choice. That sounds like a lot, but the icons are surprisingly easy to interpret–once I read through the list in the game manual once, I didn’t need to refer to it again. In DA:O I sometimes would pick a response only to think, “I didn’t mean it that way!” when a character took offense (is that “Shut up, Alistair” supposed to be angry? Exasperated? Teasing?). The way the dialogue is set up now prevents that from happening, and it also prevents players from “accidentally” either pursuing or ending a romance; overall, it provides more information so that the player can better roleplay their Hawke.

The other major addition to the dialogue system is voice acting for the player character; implemented along with this is a clever system of “response stacking,” which is described in detail in the DA wiki, but the gist of it is that there are not only (generally) three different ways of responding given, but three different personalities that affect the tone of the responses. So if Hawke has been generally kind so far, even selecting an “aggressive” response will not sound as aggressive as a Hawke who is aggressive more often than not. This is the sort of thing that’s only noticeable on subsequent playthroughs, but even on a single playthrough it has the effect of keeping Hawke’s character and voice acting consistent (but with some flexibility–for example, the response stack resets at the start of each act, allowing for character changes in the intervening years). It’s subtle, but it’s an excellent way for the game to work with the player in facilitating roleplaying, and it allows players to feel free to choose dialogue responses that are different in tone without having jarring changes in Hawke’s personality, freeing the player from always having to choose one type of response.

The second exciting change is that of the approval system, which is now a friendship/rivalry system. Essential to understanding this is realizing that “rivalry” does not mean “hate.” The game depicts the friendship-rivalry spectrum as a straight line, but it’s more accurate to think of it as a U-shape, where full friendship and full rivalry are the two highest, parallel points and the middle apathetic area is at the bottom. It’s an elegant solution to the biggest problem with DA:O’s approval system, where the player is encouraged to kiss their companions’ asses (or figure out what they want to hear) at the expense of roleplaying so that they don’t miss out on the stat bonuses high approval provides, or even lose characters entirely. In DA2, the player not only isn’t punished for doing something a companion disagrees with, they’re rewarded for it. Pursuing a rivalry (which, again, is not making your companion hate Hawke) has parallel benefits as friendship; rivalry is a strong relationship, it’s just different than friendship.

The friendship/rivalry system is something that clearly could have used a bit more demonstration or even explaining, considering some of the reactions I’ve seen. If the player approaches the dialogue and relationships in Dragon Age 2 like they’re systems to be manipulated for maximum benefit, they’re only going to be frustrated and disappointed. The game is geared toward creating and expressing a character and seeing the often-messy results of personality clashes and power struggles, and that’s what makes it such a joy to play.

Update: So I saw this post today, and while it makes some great points, especially about Mass Effect, what bothers me about it is there’s no distinction between the old relationship system in Origins and the system in DA2, even though the changes are crucial to what’s being talked about in the article. In DA2 it is simply no longer the case that sucking up to your companions is optimal play. Now it is actually better to actively piss off your party members instead of painstakingly avoiding offending them.

There is zero gameplay difference between having a companion as a rival or a friend; Isabela comes back for you if you have high enough friendship or rivalry with her, other companions will stay with you at the end if you have enough friendship or rivalry, max friendship and rivalry both give a companion bonus stats, and you can even romance every romanceable character on a rivalry path. As I said above, it’s incorrect to criticize DA2 for encouraging players to game the system to please everybody; the only thing encouraging players to do that is their own desires (and perhaps BioWare not explaining–or better yet, demonstrating–the rivalry thing well enough). I’d be lying if I said I never wanted to reload because I got a few rivalry points, but letting go of that impulse and doing what you think is right (or what your character thinks is right) makes DA2 a much better game.

The screenshots in this post were provided by Denis’s DA2 screenshot gallery–thanks, Denis!

Style Savvy's Most Glaring Issue

I played and finished Style Savvy earlier this year, and I kind of loved it. If you’re unfamiliar, it is Nintendo’s aggressively-marketed fashion game for the DS where you play as a stylist and boutique manager. You buy clothes to stock your shop, and help customers find pieces that fit their style and preferences. For example, a customer will say something like, “I’m looking for a skirt that matches my quirky style!” Based on key words (like “quirky”), what the customer is wearing, and sometimes the person’s personality blurb, you can figure out what brand they like, and then it’s just a matter of picking the item they asked for from that brand. Although there are occasionally variations (for example, if a person is wearing all blue, they might buy something that isn’t their favorite brand, if it’s blue), that’s how it works.

Despite how the game (perhaps necessarily) simplifies fashion and style, I quite enjoyed it. There’s a focus on using clothes as a creative outlet and a mode of self-expression, an attitude similar to that of many folks in the style blogosphere. But the game has a glaring problem that cannot be overlooked: your character, and every single one of your customers, all look like this:

A screenshot from Style Savvy. On the right are five different necklaces to choose from, on the left is a female avatar shown from mid-thigh up. She has a tiny waist and narrow hips.

While there are a few NPCs that have unique character models (though they are all thin, also), every other character has the exact same size-zero body. Since this game is on the DS, it’s possible that there are technical reasons for this, but that’s not an excuse I accept. And it certainly explains why I don’t need to worry about buying clothes in different sizes. But thinking about it, it becomes kind of disturbing. It’s not just that everyone is thin, it’s that everyone is exactly the same.

But also, fashion is notoriously sizeist and fatphobic. It’s no coincidence that Pepsi’s “slim, attractive” new can debuted at Fashion Week. (Really, the entire “bodies” tag at SocImages is ample evidence.) And yet, while the target audience of the game may be fans and followers of high fashion, the game seems to evoke the sensibilities of the democratized online world of street-fashion blogging, with its emphasis on self-expression and experimentation. But the vast variety of bodies that make up this world are nowhere to be seen in Style Savvy. Where are the women like Stéphanie (whose blog subheading is “Style is not a size but an attitude”), or the Fa(t)shion February crew?

(This is not to say that the fashion blogosphere is a happy shiny fully-inclusive space–far from it. The young and thin bloggers are the most likely to get well-paying advertisers and free designer clothing. But due to the nature of the internet, it is still far less exclusionary than the fashion industry and traditional press. It’s possible to carve out fat-positive and inclusive spaces, like the Fa(t)shion February project.)

Sometimes games present worlds that conflict with our own experiences, breaking our suspension of disbelief, and in that conflict we can tell something about the biases and assumptions that went into creating that world. The world of fashion in Style Savvy is comprised entirely of very thin people, which is simultaneously a discouragingly accurate depiction of high fashion and a completely unrealistic depiction of the broader realm of street fashion. In Style Savvy, clothes and makeup and hairstyles are all that separates one person from another, but in the real world, a person’s body can be, and often is, an intrinsic part of their style. It’s certainly always a consideration–fashion is part sculpture, where different fabrics and cuts can change a person’s proportions: clothing and body work together to create art. The game mouths the ideals of fashion as self-expression, but it falls flat when the actual physical self is taken entirely out of the equation. People are different, and those differences should be celebrated, not erased.