Saturday, August 11, 2012

The first two hours; part 1.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of sitting in with a friend as he began two RPGs in one night – one eastern, one western. For whatever reason, my roommate decided that it was high time he began playing Lost Odyssey, which he’d owned for some months without ever opening, just at the instant I’d showed up with The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings in hand. We cranked up the AC, poured out some good beer, and gave each game around two hours of intro playtime to get a decent feel for each. Both games have gotten good reviews – both games were noted for having great stories, in particular.

So why have we played through The Witcher four or five times, without touching Lost Odyssey since?

There are plenty of discussions about the differences between western RPGs and JRPGs, but I really wanted to sit down and think about why such a disparity in play experience took us to such dramatically different ends. My friend was playing, and I was watching, but I still found it difficult to navigate the intro to Lost Odyssey, whereas The Witcher felt pretty solid, right from the get-go. For that matter, it might be noteworthy that plenty of gamers have found The Witcher to be turgid and over-difficult (Zero Punctuation’s review was fairly accurate in its assessments, even though I disagree with the conclusion). So why did my friend and I have that negative response to Lost Odyssey, but not The Witcher? Let's start with that question.

And maybe, ideally, we could get some nifty game design worthwhiles out of the experience.

[Editor's note: I can certainly appreciate and anticipate the comment that these games are totally different, trying to accomplish different things, etc., and that same comment is true of the varied other games I reference in the article. The main decision to compare Lost Odyssey with The Witcher 2 was the literal fact of having played both of them in the same night, and the rest of the examples simply come from my experience. That experience is limited, so example and counter-examples are expected and welcome.]

Expect spoilers for the first hour of Lost Odyssey, The Witcher 2, Final Fantasy 7, Kingdoms of Reckoning: Amalur, and Knights of the Old Republic.

Big worlds start small

Evidently, both LO and TW2 take place in vast, wonderful, lovingly-crafted worlds full of heroes, heroines, assholes, and common folk, all wending their way through a complicated superstructure of magic, mundanity, mechanics, politics, and general mystical hoo-ha. There’s a lot to deal with in both instance: tons of characters, all with particularities to their relationships, belonging to different organizations which themselves have particularities to their relationships, and a world with some basic rules and attitudes that are totally different from our own. In any medium, that’s a serious issue to overcome, and in a game, even moreso, since most people come to a game expecting to experience “fun” more or less consistently.

Because I’m an idiot, I thought that a comparison to a different medium might actually shed some light on this question. For those of who you know that The Lord of the Rings is a book, you might also recall from having read it that it is fucking gargantuan. There really is an entire world crammed between the two covers of the red leatherbound edition which I expect any sci-fi/fantasy fan to own, padded deliciously with a whole slew of appendices on kings’ dynasties and how each chieftain of the Rangers died (wolves, evidently). But do you also remember how LOTR begins? It’s really tiny: a domestic drama. Two birthday parties, and one guy complaining about how his in-laws are trying to get his house. Everything that happens subsequently, from meeting elves to fighting off millennia-old servants of an exiled demigod to running barefoot up the side of a mountain, begins with the story of two tiny dudes eating and drinking with their friends and family. There’s a number of reasons why this works, one of them being that it allows for appropriate expansions of scale through the book (you’ve got more room to up the ante with each successive challenge), but more important to the question of how a new visitor experiences a huge world, it’s small enough to digest altogether. First off, you only have to deal with three really crucial characters at once – Bilbo, Frodo, and Gandalf when he shows up – and second, their relationships and troubles are things we already understand. Instead of giving you a whole huge chunk of world at once, we get a single sliver.

How do our games hold up to the same principle?

LO begins with a big epic battle, chock full of all the awesome things that should push all our awesome buttons. Dudes in big clanky fantasy armor are tossing around huge swords while towering robot tanks crush guys, while reinforcements are begin driven up in what look conspicuously like steampunk coffins. The player-character shows up and starts kicking ass and taking names, except all the enemies are faceless evil robot-men with no identities, so he basically just kicks ass until the sky turns to lava and everyone dies. And yet, interestingly enough, between the two vast armies and their tanks and artillery pieces, the numbers of actants in the opening battle sequence could not begin to approximate the number of fucks that I could not give about what was happening.

I understood the basic cues I was given – guys in black armor with red eyes, guys in gold armor with…faces, one dude who’s a third the body weight of everyone else and has his midriff exposed like a teenage girl but still ruins everyone else – but they were nothing other than internally-consistent cues which presented the basic shape of a totally generic epic sci-fi/fantasy world. It feels especially ruinous saying something like that, since LO received some stellar praise from reviewers regarding the uniqueness of its world and the emotional beauty of its story and characters, but frankly, I want to talk about the effects of design decisions, and the effect of the early design decisions in LO was that I never saw any of that beauty in the first two hours of the damn game. LOTR begins with a sequence that invites you into the home of a main character, and rather than confusing you, only makes you care about them on purely human terms: they have family relationships; they celebrate birthdays; Bilbo is happy to see an old friend again. These are totally mundane facts, but they give you the most rudimentary basis for caring about the larger events which will later happen. LO doesn’t give you that at all. Instead, it plays precisely into the human problem of large-scale mechanized warfare, a spiritual problem which we have understood for centuries – if you see row after row of identical-looking, uniform-clad soldiers, it’s harder to think of them as unique, living people and easier to think of them as bullshit sword-fodder. So even though we understand the basic visual cues of good guys and bad guys, we have no real basis for assigning good or bad to either side, and they’re really interchangeable for all intents and purposes. The addition of the player-character to that equation did nothing to change that balance, because I still had no understanding of who he was or why he did what he did. The bigger the introduction got, the smaller my interest became.

What’s particularly intriguing about this fact is that TW2 also begins with a huge epic battle, but it treats the subject in a totally different way. (Firstly, I’d like to point out that I played the Xbox version of the game, which includes an optional tutorial to be discussed a bit further on.) The intro to TW2 definitely isn’t perfect – it starts with text, for the love of God – but it very quickly strikes our key points by taking the reverse approach to the same big-battle set-piece. Instead of introducing us to very broad-strokes groups, good guy army and bad guy army, without giving us any real human referents for their attitudes and actions, TW2 gives us a handful of primary and secondary characters clustered together. We begin with our player-character, Geralt, in prison, with two rowdy guards keeping watch. We’re subsequently introduced to Vernon Roche, our captor and interrogator, who eases us into remembering the big battle at LaVallette Castle. That’s it – two major characters (Geralt and Roche), and two minor characters (the guards) who teach us more about the major characters by gossiping or remarking on them. It’s tight, informative, and not overwhelming. Even though we don’t understand what Geralt’s doing in prison, or who Roche is, there’s just enough mystery to not let us know, but still let us care.

We then get to our big battle scene, in flashback, but the treatment is totally different than in LO. We begin with characters, and only gradually work our way into actual combat. It’s certainly difficult to keep track of everyone, but it’s made much easier by two simple decisions which the developers wisely made. One, each character (or character cluster, like the mercenaries you meet near your tent) has a few unique relational details which let us situate them. We learn in the opening conversation that Geralt and Triss are lovers, and servants of Foltest. Geralt saved Foltest from an assassin. Geralt is a monster-slayer by profession. Foltest is about to fight a battle to recapture his children from their mother. That’s all the salient information, and we get it all literally in one conversation, which primes us for the whole prologue. Two, each important point is reiterated multiple times before we jump into combat. We’ll hear from Geralt, Triss, and Foltest that Geralt is a monster slayer, that he saved Foltest from an assassin, that he’s carrying on with Triss, and that this battle is about Foltest sleeping with someone else’s wife. It strikes a useful intermediary position between the mundanity of LOTR (in-laws, birthday parties) and the totally alien experience of LO (huge battle with robots and tall hats). Someone saved someone’s life; someone’s sleeping around; possession of children is in question. Those are the same basic situations we see in our own world, and they let us stabilize ourselves in a way LO doesn’t. Like I said, we can understand basic visual cues from LO’s opening (gold armor, good guys, black armor, bad guys), but we can’t really understand why anyone is good or bad, much less our player character. We can immediately begin digesting and responding to the world of TW2 because we have enough material to form opinions about it. Foltest is a king who slept with a nobleman’s wife and now has to deal with the consequences; maybe we think he’s an okay guy or not, but at least we can begin deciding that for ourselves given the basic facts. We know Geralt doesn’t like the situation, but that teaches us about Geralt as well.

We might also rename this principle, or at least frame it differently, by saying that LO tries to build a world from the beginning, but TW2 builds characters instead. It’s a huge difference that gives us a reason (or doesn’t) to actually keep playing and see more of that wonderful world. Maybe it’s not a piece of advice particularly useful to just anyone making any game, but for any narrative game – especially epic sci-fi/fantasy RPGs, for which the narrative is a focal point of the game experience and a major draw for your players – it can be a crucial stumbling block when handled poorly.

Think about Final Fantasy 7. It had a large cast of well-drawn characters, each of them with a rich backstory that could be explored ad infinitum later into the game; however, it began mostly with Cloud and Barrett running around fighting Shinra soldiers together, to destroy a mako reactor. There are a few conversations between them about the reactors, Shinra, and mako energy. Barrett makes it clear he doesn’t trust Cloud and Cloud seems blasé about the state of the world, in it only for pay. Sure, they come off as archetypal at first, but at least that serves as the basis of a relationship between the two characters, the world, and us as players. If the developers had instead dropped Cloud into the whole massive world with a looming extraterrestrial threat on the verge of ruining the planet, we would have been lost. Sephiroth and Aeris, two of the more memorable (and ultimately, more important) characters, are quite alien, and don’t make for relatable introductions to this place. Instead, terrorism, corruption, and ecological damage offer us points of comparison to our own world, and the broad-strokes portraits we first get of our characters again allow us to start forming opinions about them right away, since their opinions about events and ideas allow us to form opinions about them as people.

By contrast, we might consider a more recent attempt at a fantasy (action) RPG, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The game has a really juicy opening, well-conceived, well-written, and well-executed. Yet in spite of all that, it never seems to have the proper effect of drawing the player into what’s happening. We see in an opening cutscene that the evil Fae king, Gadflow, has waged war on humanity for his god, only to find that our character is a soldier killed in battle with his forces. The character wakes up in a pile of bodies beneath a gnomish laboratory, only to discover that Gadflow’s warriors are assailing the laboratory. We quickly find that this place is the Well of Souls, run by gnomish scientist Fomorous Hugues. All of that is well and good, but like LO, we don’t much care, unfortunately. We see a couple of people we don’t know, being killed by other people we don’t know. Cloud professed not to have any emotional investment in his mission to blow up Shinra’s mako reactor, but at least we knew enough of him to know about his attitudes and opinions, and how they contrasted with Barrett’s. The only real characters in the beginning of KOA:R are the player character, who just returned from death and has something in the way of nil for a personality, and Fomorous Hugues, who appears briefly and then jets off. There are no character interactions which ground us in the world – everything is strange, and nothing wonderful enough to draw us in on sheer essential value. The most compelling people in the prologue of the game are the two gnomes who banter with each other while wheeling your corpse down a hallway!

Even the intro sequence to the first Knights of the Old Republic game managed a decent balance here. Although the prologue was spent fighting off a Sith attack on your Republic ship, you’re immediately awoken by a fellow soldier who tells you to find Bastila Shan, the Jedi knight on board, who’s crucial to the Republic war effort; as soon as you open your bedroom door, Carth Onasi, captain of the ship, contacts you and tells you to head to the bridge to aid the soldiers there. Bam. The developers wasted no time in introducing you to both of the major characters who would form the center of your entire experience on the first world of the game. Even though you won’t see Bastila’s face for hours, you hear her name over and over from the second sentence of the game onward, and since much of the game’s story hinges on your relationship with her, that’s a smart writing decision. It’s especially noteworthy because the game comes from such an established IP, and the devs could easily have gotten away with a fairly generic Sith vs. Republic and Jedi battle. Instead, they gave you a Sith vs Republic and Jedi battle, but framed it around the three main characters – you, Bastila, and Carth.

I called this first part “big worlds start small,” and by that I meant not to introduce too much of a world in the very beginning of the game. I might tweak that notion by instead suggesting a more nuanced approach: do your best to balance introduction of ideas with the introduction of characters. Lost Odyssey introduces you to a whole war, two huge armies, strange technology, magic and mages, a natural or magical sky-rending cataclysm, combat moves, item mechanics, and navigation before you know a single person’s name. In The Witcher 2, you know Geralt, Roche, Triss, and Foltest literally before you can take a single step (although you do have a few dialogue options before that). Those are totally different ways to begin an epic story in an epic world, and one immediately turned me off, while the other kept me going on another three plays-through. Especially when a big demographic of players only has so long to decide whether or not to play a game - two hours to decide whether or not you like a game can be fairly luxurious for some of us - making a deep connection right away can make or break the sixty hours of RPGing that follows. Lost Odyssey may indeed have a wonderful story in a beautiful world filled with heartbreakingly real characters, but I'll never know, because it lost me, barely ninety minutes in.

Next: "small worlds start big" - at least when it comes to mechanics and tutorials.

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