Archive for the 'role-playing games' category

Richard Garriott on Ultima V

Dec 04 2009 Published by under Entertainment, role-playing games

(I'm still working hard on my book!  I'll throw a few posts out here and there as I find the time.)

As a follow-up to my post on "videogames as art", I decided to buy "The Official Book of Ultima", a nice little book by Shay Adams written in 1990 that is partly a strategy guide and partly a history of the creation of the first 6 Ultima games.  Garriott's statements show that he really evolved from making adventure games into making games that would force players to think about their actions.  He was, in fact, a true auteur for the first four Ultimas, having written the script and coded the games entirely on his own!  I can't resist quoting one fascinating section:

ORIGIN actually lost an employee over another of Garriott's efforts to involve players emotionally as well as intellectually an imaginatively with his fantasy worlds.  He says it even got his family involved emotionally, triggering a significant debate among them.  It all had to do with killing that roomful of children (or not killing them, depending on whether you killed them or not).  While designing some of the 256 individual dungeon rooms in Ultima V, "populating dungeons, filling them with stuff, and putting things here and there," Garriott racked his brain for some novel and unexpected situations to build into the dungeons.  Since the software didn't support putting characters capable of conversation in a dungeon room, Garriott was restricted to filling rooms with furniture or monsters.  If he placed a villager in a dungeon room, for instance, the man would function as a monster and could not be addressed in conversation.

"I was looking through the tile set and I came across this very interesting shape -- children" he says.  As he constructed a dungeon room, deep down in a maze, he filled it with little jail cells, then filled the cells with children.  The room was set up so that when players push on the wall in one place, the jail cells open and the young prisoners are liberated.  "So you see the children and you want to save them," Garriott explains, "but when you find a way to open the jail cells, they come out and start attacking you

"Well, I thought, that is an interesting little problem, isn't it?  Because I knew darn well that the game doesn't care whether you kill them or whether you walk away.  It didn't matter, but I knew it would bring up a psychological image in your mind, an image that was in my mind -- and any conflict you bring up in anybody's mind is beneficial.  It means a person has to think about it.

"Personally, I didn't care how they resolved it, so I put it in.  I was really pleased with myself.  However, one of the playtesters in the New Hampshire office found that room.  He was a religious fundamentalist and was immediately outraged -- he thought it was encouraging child abuse.  He didn't call me about it; he wrote a long letter to Robert [Garriott's brother], two or three pages about how he was utterly unwilling to be involved with a company who would  even consider, in his mind promoting child abuse.  Well, Robert was outraged.  He called me up and said, 'Richard, Richard, how could you consider putting something like that in your game?' I told him he had it all wrong, I mean, he'd interpreted it as it said in the letter, that the only way you can win the game is to slaughter the children in that room.  I am telling him, first of all, most people aren't going to see that room, because you don't see every dungeon room, and secondly, when you walk in the room, you don't have to let them out.  And third, you don't have to kill them.

"If you were that bent out of shape about killing them -- which is the easiest way to get out of the room -- you could charm them and make them walk out of the room yourself.  You could put them to sleep and walk out of the room.  You could do any number of things, but the point is that you don't have to kill them.  Admittedly, nine out of ten people who find the kids screaming out around their feet are going to kill them -- but you don't have to kill children to win the game, so there's a big difference.  Robert still thought I had to remove them from the game, and he got my parents involved.  They called and said, 'Richard, how can you consider doing this?,' and they were saying, 'just remove this, it is just a little room, why are you bothering to fight for this so much?'

"And I said, because you guys are missing the point.  You are now trying to tell me what I can do artistically -- about something that is, in my opinion, not the issue you think it is.  If it was something explicitly sexist or explicitly racist or promoting child abuse, I could stand being censored.  But if it is something that provoked an emotional response from one individual, I say I have proven the success of the room.  The fact that you guys are fighting me over this makes me even more sure I should not remove  that room from the game."

I actually remember that room in the dungeon of Ultima V.  The first time in it, I killed all the little tykes.  That response bothered me so much, however, that I reloaded the game and played it through again and instead chose not to unlock the cells.  (I wasn't worldly enough at that age to think of the 'charm' or 'sleep' strategies.)

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Video games as art: My favorite games that are more than just 'point and shoot'

Nov 25 2009 Published by under Entertainment, role-playing games

The other night, I stayed up way past my bedtime playing the finale of the video game DragonAge: Origins, the recently released fantasy role-playing game (RPG) by BioWare.  Though the game had a lot of technical limitations that drove me nuts, and the fantasy setting was definitely stereotypical (Zero Punctuation had a great review of the game), in the end the characters and the development of the story won me over.  The game is designed to force you to make very hard decisions, most of which possess no right answer.  Though I made the choices that I felt were right in the game, I was genuinely saddened at the end of the game because of the consequences of those choices.  It may seem odd, but it is a game that will probably stick with me for some time.

This reminded me of a topic I've thinking of blogging about for some time: are video games artistic?  Of course, modern video games have armies of artists producing the graphics and the music, and there are other sites that consider video games as art in a more abstract sense, but I'm really thinking more about the stories that are told and the way they are told.

Roger Ebert has, in years past, caught a lot of flak for expressing his opinion that video games cannot be art comparable to great literature and movies:

...I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

Roger Ebert has given this a lot of thought (and gotten into arguments with Clive Barker over it), and he makes a very reasoned case.  If I understand it correctly, he argues that good movies and literature require the author to tell a story the way he or she wants to tell it -- the more one gives the player control over the outcome of the story, the more one is sacrificing their story and artistic vision.

I used to think more or less the same thing as Ebert, but these days I respectfully disagree with him.  Firstly, interactivity doesn't necessarily ruin the story the author wants to tell -- it can place the gamer into the story in a way that gets them more involved than a passive reading can do.   Furthermore, it is possible to use the very act of interactivity to tell a sort of 'meta-story' -- showing the gamer how their actions have consequences and showing how those consequences can ripple further along the line in the tale.

Of course, most games don't do this at all, and I can't blame Ebert for not being familiar with some of the gems of the genre.  Heck, most movies that are produced fall very, very short of being 'high art', and someone who casually follows the summer blockbusters would certainly get the impression that movies are shallow and vapid.

With this in mind, I thought I'd share my list of video games that aspire to something more than shallow entertainment.  Whether or not they reach the level of 'art' I leave it to the reader to decide.  Certainly this isn't intended to be the final word or even a convincing argument in favor; the internet is filled with commentary on the subject.
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Nice interviews with Richard Garriot and Lyn Evans on Vice/VBS.tv

Aug 12 2009 Published by under Entertainment, role-playing games

A few months ago, I got a nice email from the folks at Vice Magazine/VBS.tv pointing me to a video interview they did with Richard Garriot (aka "Lord British"), the fabulously wealthy fantasy computer-gaming guru responsible for the Ultima series of games.

I was distracted by other things at the time (did I mention I'm trying to get my tenure package together and finish a book?), but I was reminded of Garriot by another email advertising a written interview with Lyn Evans, one of the project managers at CERN.

The Evans interview (which can be read here) is a nice discussion of the basic goals of the collider project and last year's startup problems.

The 20-minute Garriot interview (which can be viewed here) is absolutely fantastic!  Not only does he share the story of his development of his line of fantasy games and his experiences in space, but he gives a tour of his really cool mansion.  This mansion includes a dungeon, secret passageways, pre-first-editions of the Lord of the Rings novels, and cool science toys like an observatory and ferrofluid manipulator. The interview contains lots of fascinating tidbits about Garriot's life and views.

(We need more wealthy people like Garriot, who put their wealth towards fun and creative projects!)

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Dave Arneson passes away at 61

Apr 09 2009 Published by under role-playing games

And now, we can officially say that it is the end of an era: Dave Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, has died, a little over a year after Gary Gygax passed away.  Though Gygax's name was much more synonymous with Dungeons & Dragons and roleplaying games in general, Arneson had as much, if not more, of an influence on the early development of the system.  Around the same time that Gygax and Perrin were developing their fantasy miniatures game Chainmail, Arneson was developing his own fantasy roleplaying game called Blackmoor.  In short order he formed a collaboration with Gygax which evolved into the first edition of D&D, and like Gygax, Arneson continued developing game ideas well after D&D.

I offer many condolences to Arneson's family, and mourn the loss of a man who gave the world a new, unique, and enduring form of entertainment.

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Very odd odds: Unusual dice

Jul 03 2008 Published by under Mathematics, role-playing games

I'm still in the midst of a massive move into a new house, but everything has at least been moved from point A to point B; now the unpacking, organizing and fixing of things begins. I'll hopefully get back to some normal blogging next week.

In the meantime, I happened across (well, 'Stumbled Upon') a few sets of very interesting dice for sale: Sicherman Dice and non-transitive dice. Both of these have some rather surprising and interesting aspects, and are new to me, anyway, so I thought I'd do a post!

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Gary Gygax has died

Mar 04 2008 Published by under Fantasy fiction, role-playing games

It's official: Gary Gygax, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, has died.  (My friend PD alerted me to the rumor earlier.)

I credit D&D for much of my current science aptitude and creativity.  I was still in grade school when I took my first foray into the game, adventuring through (like so many others) The Keep on the Borderlands and In Search of the Unknown.  Playing D&D and later role-playing games taught me several important skills: I gained an aptitude in basic math and probability from the rules of the games (what are the odds I'll be able to hit that AC -8 will o' wisp?), and the development of adventures for my friends gave my creativity a workout.

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Some of my favorite video game villains!

Feb 06 2008 Published by under Entertainment, role-playing games

One of my vices, if you would call it that, is an endless desire to make 'top ten' lists of things. Or top eight, or six... whatever I can find! I'm a lot like John Cusack's character in High Fidelity (including the history of relationship troubles).

Anyway, today I've had video game villains on my mind. I thought I'd make a list of some of my favorite video game villains. My favorites include those with great personalities, those who scared the hell out of me, and those who just kick ass! My list below the fold. Some minor spoilers are involved, so if you're planning to play the game mentioned, you may want to skip that description...

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I wasn't slain by an elf... I AM an elf!

Dec 22 2007 Published by under Entertainment, role-playing games

Now that I'm thinking about role-playing games again, I found a nice questionnaire (h/t The Garbled Zombie) that allows you to determine what sort of Dungeons and Dragons character you would be. It's a long questionnaire, but quite entertaining to see the results. Mine are below the fold...

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