Witcher, Skyrim and Fable – Feeling like a part of the world

I’ve been revisiting Witcher 3 recently, specifically the Blood and Wine dlc. It really is rather good – if you haven’t downloaded it I’d highly recommend you do, and if you haven’t played Witcher 3 go do that right now. No spoilers here though, so maybe you could read on first…

I used the word ‘revisiting’ in the first sentence very specifically. Playing Witcher does feel like visiting somewhere. To use a gaming cliche, it feels like a living, breathing world. But there’s nowhere near the level of interactivity of Fable 2. What’s that? I get to talk about Fable 2 some more? Well ok then…

Fable 2 is, hitherto, my favourite example of feeling like part of a gaming world. I’ve written about it before, repeatedly. Sorry. You’re able to use various emotes, from posing to growling to farting, which the people of Albion respond to in different ways. Some of them find burping disgusting, some find it funny. And depending on how you’ve behaved on your travels they may have a different response altogether. And if you’re fat they might call you Pie Eater. I love it. Witcher doesn’t have this though. On the surface, Witcher seems to have more in common with Skyrim than Albion. 

I find Skyrim to be a frustrating place. At the beginning of the game the responses you receive make a sort of sense. You’re a nobody and by and large people are standoffish towards you. But my character pursued the mage guild quests. He worked his way up the ranks to become the Dean of Winterhold College. The Dean. The head honcho. The wielder of the largest wand. His staff most definitely had a knob on the end. And yet. The way people greeted me, even in the college itself, didn’t change. I was still being hailed with the same stock lines about my honeyed words, being looked down on as a stranger. Skyrim is so immersive in many ways and really jarring in as many others.

The Witcher, like Skyrim has a pool of stock reactions with which the populace greet you. Every now and then there’s something a little more personal, but by and large there’s distrust. Fear. Hatred of the outsider. The lines may be better acted, but it seems similar to Skyrim. Last night I wandered past a village, and the whole populace were dancing around a fire. Some kind of fete was going on. I stumbled down the hill, eager to take part, but I couldn’t. Geralt doesn’t have those verbs. In Albion my hero could have danced around the fire, but Geralt and the Dragonborn have to look on and wonder. 

But then I realised. Geralt feels much more a part of the land than the Dragonborn does. And it’s very much because he is an outsider. He is sneered at by passers by, called the Butcher of Blavikenand much worse. And he always has been. He looks distinctive. Word spreads. He is a mutant and people have their opinions of that sort. Because Geralt feels like as much of an outsider as the player does, the world of Witcher 3 feels real.

Ok, I know I promised no spoilers, but since starting this piece I’ve played a little more and there’s something from the main quest that’s pertinent. So skip the next para to avoid SPOILERS.

There’s a moment when Regis asks Geralt whether, if he could start from the beginning again, he would want to become a Witcher or whether he would rather live a normal life. And the player gets to choose the response. It’s a great question and cuts right to the heart of this topic. Is Geralt satisfied with being the outsider? Is the player? Cursed to hear the same petty insults wherever you go, to never be allowed to join the dance… It’s probably the longest I’ve thought about a response in Witcher? The answer? To me, Geralt would want to be a Witcher again. He still feels like a part of the world, even if he is apart from most of it. And he gets to hang out with some pretty nifty sorceresses, so it’s not all bad.

End of spoilers.

It’s the synergy of player feeling and character feeling which enhances what is already an excellent game, and it’s in part the lack of that which has left me slightly cold (ahaha) about Skyrim (full disclosure: I’ve completed the main quest and more beside, and started a second character – so it’s not entirely without merit!).

Fable 2 and Witcher 3 are my favourite examples of immersive game worlds, but please recommend some more to me – it’s plainly something I respond to!

@BornToPootle

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Life Is Strange – The Secret To Its Success

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There are a huge number of things Life Is Strange does brilliantly (and perhaps a few that aren’t so great, shaka brah) but the more I think about it the more one thing stands out. No major plot spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t played it and want to go in fresh, maybe check back after you’ve finished.

So, what’s this amazing thing? No, not the tenderness with which it deals with a huge variety of sensitive topics. Not the casting of the player as the geeky girl rather than the geeky guy pursuing said geeky girl. Not even making the main character a photographer, mirroring the player’s sense of watching events unfold with varying degrees of powerlessness (incidentally, we’ll be talking about all this plus subtext, gender, sexuality and more on the next episode of The Conversation Tree Podcast).

Nope, the best thing about what is, with hindsight and distance, rapidly becoming my favourite game of all time, is the very central core mechanic. It’s Max’s time manipulation power.

Games are stuffed full of characters with superpowers. Look at Geralt and his ability to set things on fire, create magical traps and a shield. How about Commander Shepherd and his/her biotics? Corvo, The Inquisitor, Booker DeWitt’s fistful of crows… Even supposedly normal characters often have superhuman abilities – Nathan Drake can definitely absorb more bullets than the average chap, and shrug wounds off with astonishing ease.

No, a mild bit of time manipulation is not the most earth-shattering addition to gaming culture. Not in general terms at any rate. But who has gained this power? A socially awkward teenager. Which is perfect.

Who gives a monkeys that Booker DeWitt can summon a watery tentacle to fling foes off a flying city – sure it’s fun, but it’s rootless. It doesn’t mean anything. Max’s time travel means everything. It’s the one thing that a socially awkward teen might conceivably most want. Rewind that conversation and be less of a dork next time. Rewind that meeting and don’t trip on the way through the door. Just like the powers in The Incredibles (still the finest of superhero films) Max’s power is directly related to an aspect of her personality.

Not only that, but gaining the power is the inciting incident for the plot. Without that power the rest of the story couldn’t happen. It seems obvious, but happens surprisingly infrequently. Booker could still murder his way through Columbia without his vigors. Geralt might have a tougher time with  just a silver sword, but could give it a good go. The Inquisitor’s glowing hand may be more integral to Dragon Age Inquisition, but it ends up just one of a range of stupendous abilities.

So the power perfectly fits the character and is central to the narrative. Great! I’m sure there are other examples of this though. Life Is Strange’s power has another benefit though…

Ever since choice became a hot topic in games I have had a struggle with myself. I know in Mass Effect what Shepherd did and who he (yup, Shepherd is forever a dude to me) was. I started a replay at some point, and tried to make different choices but… that wasn’t Shepherd. But was there any point replaying if I just want to do everyhing the same way?

I’ve played The Walking Dead season one twice. Season two once (though I reloaded the ending). SPOILERS AHEAD. SKIP PARAGRAPH TO AVOID! I definitely want to replay both but… what’s cannon now? When the third one comes out, who is Clementine? Did she kill Jane? Is Kenny still out there? It’s muddled. I can’t separate out my ‘true’ playthrough from the one where I just wanted to see what the other options were.

Life is Strange gives the player the best of both worlds. Being able to rewind time means being able to make a different choice, to see how events might play out differently. And when you’ve tried all the options, seen what could be, you can make your choice. What would Max do given all the information? It’s not some weird omniscient player reloading to try a better option, it’s an integral part of the fiction. It’s the fabric of the story. There are of course unforeseen consequences. How some scenes play out will affect things much further on, so there is still an element of needing to replay to see everything. But that’s why I think it’s the best of both worlds. The player gets enough curiosity sated to not need to constantly reload and simultaneously there are enough palpable changes that you still wonder what-if. You can still see your impact on the lives of other characters.

Not only that, but this also enables better immersion in the game. Exhausting conversation trees in rpgs and talk-em-ups can sometimes feel very strange. Why does the other character suffer through your incessant questioning, particularly when you start looping back through questions to get to different sub-questions? In Life is Strange you can try out all the conversation options while still remaining in the fiction. Super-Max can simply rewind time and try something else.

Effectively this all comes down to obstacles. As a player, using the time power to try different options removes an obstacle to immersion and developing a fully rounded sense of character. As a character Max uses her power to overcome  her own personal obstacles. And not just the big plotty stuff. Max starts crippled by self doubt and shyness. By the end of the game she’s confident. She’s a badass. That’s how to weave game mechanics into a narrative and that’s one of many reasons Life is Strange may well be my favourite game.

@BornToPootle

@TheConvoTree

Videogame Gothic

I mentioned the game Layers of Fear in a previous post. I hadn’t played it but was looking forward to trying a horror game that didn’t become merely stressful. I have most definitely played it now (twice – it’s sensibly short) plus its dlc and enjoyed it very much. In fact the game was the subject of the last Conversation Tree Podcast episode (which I co-host) and I’d like to expand on a few of those thoughts and broaden out to include a few more games.

If you haven’t listened to the episode (and it’s worth it – Lyd loses her shit at the subtext of the game) one of the main things I spoke about was how Layers of Fear fitted very snugly in the gothic tradition. And further still, I idly wondered if games could be the best medium yet for the genre?

Let’s backtrack a little. What does gothic actually mean as a genre label? I went to a great exhibition on gothic at The British Library a couple of years ago and there was a definition from Neil Gaiman along the lines of:

‘If the book cover could feature a woman wearing a nightie, holding a candelabra, running away from a mansion at night, and the windows of the mansion are dark except for one at the top… and in that window is the silhouette of a man…then it’s definitely gothic.’

There’s more to it than that of course, but it’s a good starting point. Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto set the genre in motion with an apparently found historical manuscript detailing the plight of a woman exploring a ruined castle beset by spirits. Ancient buildings, the supernatural and ancient tomes are all key features. There’s an otherness too, an atmosphere of slow, dawning doom. Or does doom set rather than dawn?

A great recent film example is Crimson Peak (which I also wrote about). This ticks all the boxes, with Mia Wasikowska’s ghost-seeing ingenue beguiled by Tom Hiddlestone’s aristocrat-with-a-secret. She’s whisked away to his crumbling ancestral home that he shares with his austere sister. Blood red clay oozes through the floorboards. There are mysterious documents and recordings, and the whole place seems ready to morph into The Fall Of The House Of Usher at the twitch of a cloak. There’s a knowing morbidity which stays, for me at any rate, just shy of descending into camp or kitsch.

In Layers of Fear you play as an artist trying to finish his masterpiece: a portrait of his wife. He’s dealing with tragedy and completing this painting is his attempt to move on, but all is not well. As you walk through the house to gather the materials you need fragments of letters and scrawled notes reveal an unhappy home and encroaching madness. The house starts to reshape itself, becoming more and more labyrinthine and ruined as the painting nears completion. Ordinary objects are possessed. A ghost stalks the halls. And the materials you are scavenging? Flesh, hair, bone, blood.

A lot of games have used trappings of the gothic in their presentation – the Castlevania series is an obvious example, stuffed as it is with vampires and gargoyle-studded castles. That’s surface detail though; the Castlevania games don’t have gothic right through the core experience.

The core of Layers of Fear is about something reaching out of the past that the player/artist must confront and either overcome or succumb to. There isn’t much more to it than that – there’s no combat, a few puzzles, little gameplay in the traditional, now almost antiquated, meaning. And boy does it have the gothic trappings.

The house crumbles around you as you investigate. PT is the obvious comparison gameplay-wise, but where that involved looping through the same two corridors with minor changes each time, Layers of Fear substitutes a constantly shifting geography to echo the mental descent of the main character into some kind of psychosis. Reach a locked door, turn around and the corridor behind you has changed into a claustrophobic room. Try the other door which has appeared and find it’s also locked. Turn again and the room has changed once more. You can’t trust the house or the artist.

Bioshock is a spectacular example that works both in more traditional gameplay and in fusing the gothic right into its core. Rapture is effectively a gothic castle, isolated, largely abandoned and haunted by thudding armoured apparitions accompanied by scuttling ethereal girls. Audio logs piece together the history of Rapture, which is itself coming apart at the seams, and you are in a way piecing together something of yourself. These aren’t optional collect-for-a-trophy audio logs, these are crucial for continuing. Finding out the secrets of Rapture is the point of the game – shooting splicers is the set dressing.

This idea of finding out the history of a seemingly abandoned space is one which games do very well. Recent horrors Soma and Alien Isolation play with this to mixed effect – Soma rather better for my money, though the first half of Alien Isolation is a pretty spectacular experience. In both there’s a supernatural horror stalking the sci fi corridors, a personal history to unravel. Alien Isolation is less satisfying because that personal history is less integral to the experience. It’s a macguffin which, rather perplexingly, is resolved half way through.

Witcher 3 played with the gothic well too – it does everything well, so it’s probably not much of a surprise. Even in a game stuffed full of supernatural beasties the quest to Fyke Isle that sees Geralt strolling into an abandoned, crumbling, isolated tower is the gothic nadir. In true genre fashion it’s a story of a doomed romance told by ghostly apparitions, and it does not end well.

Games excel at creating architecture to explore – they’re better at it than any other medium (apart from experiential theatre perhaps, but the architecture is more limited by reality there). Stuff it full of ancient tomes, scribbled notes or audio diaries that illuminate the history of the place, and you’re well on your way to the gothic. Turn the lights down low, make sure the location’s history is intrinsic to the player character in some way and you’re even closer. A sprinkling of the supernatural, a sense that things aren’t going to end well and… yum.

It’s often said that cinema was the best medium for the gothic in the 20th century. In the 21st it is surely going to be videogames.

@BornToPootle

No Man’s Game

I find myself on an undiscovered planet, bathed by a sickly yellow sun. The atmosphere is hazy, and all around me pustulant trees rise in the murk. 

I start to explore, keeping a watchful eye for indigenous wildlife. It doesn’t seem like the kind of planet where friendly creatures gambol and frolic.

As I crest a rocky ridge, a strangely unnerving vista comes into view. The pustulant trees, evil green globules attached to the rock by fleshy stalks, stretch off into the distance. Standing sentinel among them are other growths. Giant mushrooms, tower over the trees. Instead of a stalk, the cap sits atop a mass of tentacles. For a moment I think they’re moving, but perhaps it’s only a lone explorer’s imagination playing tricks. 

I hear a cry. There’s something alive here, but I can’t see it. Off in the distance, half hidden by a low hill and cluster of tentacled mushrooms, an ancient crumbling spire rises through the yellowed air. Some species made this place home long ago.

Toxic rain starts to fall as I set out for the ruin. My shielding will not last long and I’m forced to run through fleshy stalks and tentacles. 

The spire belongs to some kind of temple. Words crawl over the cyclopean ruins. My shielding has almost been burned away by the toxic rain so I don’t get a clear look. But I saw the word ‘Interloper’ repeated among many strange words I don’t recognise. I have the sense that the words may appear different depending on who’s looking. Were they speaking directly to me? Warning me?

I crash through a dilapidated archway and into the base of the spire. The pattering of deathly rain on stone is deafening. The cry comes again. Something is out there.

There are no stairs up the spire, but rotten floors have given way. I clamber up, floor by floor until I’m inside the cupola. Round windows look out, portholes on to this alien world. 

From this new vantage point I can see globulous trees and tentacled mushrooms stretching away in the toxic mire. Nothing can survive here, surely. I find myself feeling sorry for whatever species created this temple, wondering what elder gods it was meant to appease. It didn’t work.

The cry comes once more. I inch round the cupola and there! High in the sky, wheeling over this forsaken landscape are three creatures. They ride the currents on bat-like wings. They’re huge but far away. As they soar and circle I try and get a better look, try to see what kind of monster can call this place home, but it’s no good. They fly away on their ragged wings. 

Perhaps it’s just as well.

Or:

Landed on a new planet. A few trees. Another ruin. Nothing good to mine. No interesting animals. Toxic, so didn’t stay long. Waste of time.

No Man’s Sky – you get out of it what you put in.

This post relates to a discussion of narrative in games on the podcast I co-present. If you’re interested head here or look up The Conversation Tree Podcast on iTunes.

@BornToPootle

Replayability and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

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I recently wrote about the film Crimson Peak, which I look forward to watching again as soon as I can. I’ll know the plot of course, but rewatching films is about more than that. It’s about reliving the mood, finding nuances and details or just poking that bit of the brain the film poked first time. So, having just today finished the game Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture I was quite surprised that many reviews mentioned it wouldn’t be very replayable.

For those who don’t know it, Rapture is set in 1980s Shropshire. You’re tasked with exploring a deserted village to piece together what’s happened to everyone after an ‘event’ (and who exactly you are). Rather than being an actiony shooter or stat poking rpg (nowt wrong with either of those, by the by) it really is just about exploration. You wander sedately around the village and the surrounding countryside getting glimpses into the last days of the people who’d once lived there and what happened to them.

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It is, quite simply, beautiful. The village and landscape, trees in bloom and bluebells poking up through the earth, look heavenly (pun very much intended). There’s so much rich detail, from scrawled signs for parish meetings and pub menus to discarded books and magazines. The scenes that you witness, played out in points of light coalescing, are up there with the best writing and acting the medium has to offer. The music and sound design are so wonderful that they could do with a blog post to themselves, but for now let’s just say they’re lovely (and eerie) in every way. It’s a game that makes you feel both lonely and loved at the same time.

And that’s why I want to replay it. There won’t be a different outcome if I play it again, though there’s a chance I missed some clues along the way. But it’s not that kind of game. It’s not a mystery in the common sense – it’s pretty clear what’s happened in the village – rather it’s about fleshing out the detail for yourself. Wondering who these people were and what they wanted. And would they have been happy if they got it?

So yes, I know what’ll happen, but why would that stop me wanting to replay the game? I’m not one for endless rereads or rewatches of favourite books and films – I’ve read Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles probably three times (and mentioned it on the blog here), Terry Pratchett’s Men At Arms five or so. My favourite films, Harvey and Donnie Darko, I probably haven’t reached double figures between them. But I do go back.

Less so in games, though – not counting things like Civ which are geared less towards individual stories. That got me wondering why. Sure, I’ve played through each of the Fable games a couple of times (Fable 2 is The Best Game Ever though – read about why here) and Witcher 2 as well (Second Best Game Ever – I’m working on Witcher 3 at the mo FYI). But there aren’t that many others I’ve actually completed multiple playthroughs for.

Time is a factor; some games are just too huge to allow for it – I’ve started a second Skyrim playthrough, a second Mass Effect trilogy character and many more, but have yet to be able to really commit to them, let alone follow the narrative all the way through. Rapture is probably do-able in five or six hours rather than the thirty to two hundred hours some games demand.

But I think the real killer is time in a different way. I first read Men At Arms in the mid 90s somewhere and have reread it around 5 times. So that averages to once every four years. I first saw Harvey in 2004 or thereabouts, so that’s rewatched once every couple of years (but is considerably shorter than most books or games). Unfortunately the lifespan of a games console generation is relatively short – the technology moves on and (seeing as backwards compatibility is increasingly unfashionable) the older games become either unplayable or the reason for carting a car boot-full of consoles with you every time you move house.

Things are changing in that regard, with endless HD remasters to re-buy (I figure Doublefine have earned the right to ask me to pay for DoTT twice in 20 years), and perhaps streaming options too, but will I be able to revisit Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture in 20 years and enjoy it in the same way I can with books and films? Or will the game itself have gone to the rapture?

Are there any narrative games you put alongside favourite books and films? And if not, why do you reckon that is (assuming you’re a gamer – I think I can guess the answer if you’re not!)? Also, interesting to note that my other half absolutely hates Rapture – if you’ve tried it what did you think?

@BornToPootle