Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The RPG Play Of: Naissance (Video Game)

I just played through NaissancE, a French video game. The first part of this reviews the game. The second discusses it with regards to RPG-play and has spoilers.

I got NaissancE as a STEAM recommendation--maybe because I liked The Stanley Parable? I'm not sure.

NaissancE is a first-person platformer which casts you as an unnamed female who begins in some kind of installation and then falls through the floor into a vast structure of unknown origin and purpose. The game is mostly done in black and white and the terrain seems to be largely composed of blocks--but it is in places, detailed and intricate. It is beautiful. It's big.

As a platformer, there are numerous sequences of precision jumping, leaping, and falling to your death. There is nothing to get: no weapons, and more or less, no monsters. You move from one majestic series of chambers to another, exploring, solving puzzles, and ... jumping and falling.

The game is very  spare with character and story--indications of what is happening are few and far between. There are titles to various sections that give you some clues as to what you might do there--but there is nothing to read, no voice-work, and so on. It is you, the vast, vast environment, and ... that's it. Well, except for the sound work which is every bit as evocative and dramatic as the visuals.

NaissancE does meticulous things with light and shadow: in many ways the game is an exercise in art-direction more than anything else. The puzzles were generally straightforward with only a few that had me scratching my head (I got through it without a walkthrough so I'm not sure whether a walkthrough exists or not). The game creators have made some of it overly frustrating and some some of it downright cruel--but on the whole, with breaks in between, I moved along at a reasonable rate.

The designers made several specific choices which seem designed to increase the pressure-level. First, and most unusually, there is a breathing mechanic that, when you run, forces you to press the left mouse button at certain intervals (a gasping noise and a circle on the screen tell you when) or else your vision goes dim and you (maybe) pass out? It's questionable: I can see how they said "In NaissancE you'll be doing a LOT of running so let's make running a kind of game/control-point."

On the other hand, the gasping noise is annoying and creates a heightened sense of anxiety that wasn't welcome and, in many circumstances of just traversing a big-ass landscape, adds interaction where it isn't wanted or needed. It also seems like you have to let up on the run-key in order to use the jump-key: this makes precision running-and-jumping puzzles extra hard for no very good reason.

Finally, the game utilizes save-points and several are pretty distant. This means you can get through something tough ... fall off a ledge ... and have to do it all over again. Fortunately their save-points are pretty well thought through so it's not horrible--but it means you'll suffer a lot of repetition and, since I couldn't tell when it was saving, I often wasn't sure when I'd reached a "safe zone" for having completed a task.

NaissancE is hurt by its lack of character and story: it shows you awesome landscapes but, devoid of any but the simplest narrative, it boils down to a puzzle / platformer. If you accept that reduction, then the vast periods of exploration seem a lot less defensible: why run around looking at things if nothing ever comes of it?

Perhaps the designers would say it's a work of art--meant to be experienced as much as played? I can kind of buy that given the artistic quality of NaissancE--but it's a much tougher sell for me. I'll also note that as a Steam recommendation it was on target. I am the guy they wanted to sell to: I don't want my money back. I wouldn't even give it a bad review. I will say this, if I'd been told that there was never any explanation for anything? I probably wouldn't have bought it save for a 1-2 USD sale-price (I stopped playing Limbo, a similarly beautiful game, when I learned there was no story-exposition at the end).

One of the things that drove me through NaissancE was wanting to see what was under the hood--and I finished it and I still don't know.

Let's talk about the RPG Potential ...

The RPG Play of NaissancE
NaissancE, as an RPG, would lack the first-person visual impact and (probably) the sound. Of course it's possible the GM could show evocative artwork and play the sound-track (and this is assuming, maybe, the game exists and the players can be treated to the pictures or something)--but mostly, for real-world traditional tabletop RPG, the GM would need to narrate the descriptions of vast halls, sheer drops, and light and dark, and so on.

And the GM would have to do it efficiently: long descriptions of complicated environments are not the friend of face-to-face gaming. It's also not clear what the mechanical focus would be. NaissancE isn't too far from a traditional dungeon if it were devoid of treasure and monsters: instead of Traps checks, you'd make your acrobatics rolls.

If the game provided a more interactive mechanic for that (say a success point pool that would dwindle as you failed rolls, increasing the pressure--and maybe some way to recover them?) then it might be entertaining provided the length of play was dramatically shortened and you only had to cover like 3-7 "levels / challenges" instead of the game's approximately 38+.

For the video experience the designers added the running mechanic and the save-point mechanic to (probably) increase tension and immersion (the running mechanic does the opposite for me--but perhaps they and their playtesters felt otherwise?). For an RPG-version, you wouldn't do the same thing (there is no reason to have a specific running mechanic) but you might want to use the same pool of success-points (or whatever) for perception rolls to see better paths or safer ways to overcome something (or to solve a puzzle). Thus, the player might interact with large tracts of space by declaring they move through carefully (better spot-check) or blaze through rapidly (possibly draining points)--but you'd need some reason for them to want to hurry.

Reality doesn't need a reason: you get bored. This ain't great--and would be murder for a tabletop game where, if you intentionally bore me, it's kind of an insult (say the GM had a timer and if I said "I go slow" the GM would put 90 seconds on the clock and we'd wait that out--I'd be like "Eh ... the story here better be fuckin' awesome").

So you'd want to have other touch-points for player-mechanical interaction or just ditch that altogether.

The problem at the bottom of NaissancE is that there is no story. I saw a YouTube comment that suggested maybe they're making another game and it might explain more? Ehh ... okay. But it better get awesome reviews or I'm not buying it. I stopped playing the similarly beautiful and exquisitely designed LIMBO when I reached a frustrating puzzle and learned online the end of the game held no revelations. I was playing for that content--knowing it wasn't there killed my motivation.

I'd guess that the NaissancE designers meant their game to be experienced as art and would defend it on that ground--and they can: one of my drivers for finishing NaissancE was to see what the next environment looked like--but it's a poor motivator compared to a great or shocking story. If you told me there was nothing at the end-screen but credits? I might not have bought it.

In an RPG, this would be easy to fix (and, indeed, the genius of Portal, the best video-game ever, IMO, was that it was a Grade-A puzzle game that, by the time it stunned me with its brilliant character, an end-song I'd put on my play-list and quote at work, and machine gun turrets I felt sorry for, needed letters above A just to grade it with). In a tabletop RPG, extra story doesn't require any extra sound or art-direction--it just needs a few good ideas.

A Note: Falling Mechanics
I remember someone on an RPG website (I believe The Forge--but am uncertain if this was the origin, where I picked it up, or somewhere else) discussing the inclusion of 'Drowning and Falling' rules in traditional tabletop RPGs. My memory is that they were having a laugh at games that included those rules for "no reason" (other than, perhaps, unthinking tradition?). After all, how often did that come up? Couldn't the GM just hand-wave it? Did the inclusion of mechanics indicate that, maybe, drowning and falling actually were pretty darn important--regardless of what you might naively assume? Should the GM work a drowning or falling sequence into every game?

No one was sure.

I'll break it to you: the reason those rules were included was because if it ever, ever comes up, it's kind of nice to have those rules. Also: bad falling rules can warp the game in ways you might not like--and while it's easy to say if you fall off a cliff, you die, what happens if your tough guy jumps off a 3-story building? That's a much harder call--and it's entirely possible that'll come up in play. If your mechanics don't give you at least some guidance, the game designer isn't doing the players and GM any favors.

Those rules are there because they are good things to include.

While there's not (really) water in NaissancE, you do, actually, fall a lot. Some falls hurt you. Some kill you (you have no health bar so if you are hurt, it's temporary). If you were going to run NaissancE as an RPG, you'd really want falling rules.

The idea of a character lost in a vast installation that plays with time, space, gravity, and so on, is, in fact, pretty compelling. There are sequences in the game that I would actually steal if I were going to run it--or something like it. The sense of desertion and abandonment could be conjured up--but I'd want more characters of some sort.

I'm reminded of the Cube movies where groups of people are brought together in an alien and hostile environment. NaissancE lacks the hostility of Cube (which was actively trying to kill you) but adds a grandeur the movies didn't have. The game as delivered wouldn't make a great RPG--but with a few tweaks it certainly could.

* You can download Drowning and Falling, the RPG, here.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Alien: Isolation (Part 2)

I'm playing the video game Alien: Isolation. It's very well done and I've been thinking about how it would work as a tabletop RPG. Now, the easy answer is that the exact translation wouldn't be all that great an idea--after all, Alien: Isolation is single-player, it's not necessarily a fun experience if you can't re-start, and depending on the initial information, you'd very likely have the Amanda Ripley character thinking: my job is to get guns or something to kill this thing (instead of the video game's explicit "you can't kill it" information).

That said, we're talking about a game like Alien: Isolation that has the player(s) creeping around hiding from a super-predator they can't beat.

The Stealth Drama
Observations have been made that if you have to make enough X-checks (Stealth rolls), eventually you're going to miss one. If the penalty is death, a series of 12 Stealth-checks (or whatever) is simply the hail-marry of your character's life-cycle. If that's how you run the hunt, either the Alien better be blind, Ripley better be a ninja, or, if it's even an 80% favorability of Ripley, she's likely a goner.

I wouldn't expect that kind of thing in a game unless I'd either signed up for it--or screwed up badly (usually meaning taking a known risk: "Sure, you can try to stealth your way past the super-predator--but it's gonna be like 12 Stealth v Perception checks and you're good--but it's got a 16 perception roll so ...").

Note, for the record, in that case the GM has explained everything material and I can figure out what my odds are. At that point, if I decided to go for it, cool.

The Use of Dramas
The core concept behind Dramas in JAGS is that instead of one roll (or one roll-vs-roll) you make a number of rolls and you get to "take actions" between them to improve your chances. In this case, the idea is that I'm going to be making Stealth rolls and I have to take actions to make that work.

The Basic Drama: 3-Roll vs. The Starbeast's Perception
Star Beast was the working title for Alien. Here's my thought for the basic drama architecture. The creature has a prey-sense of, let's say, 16 or less. I make 3 rolls (the "typical" drama is a 3-roll drama) with a Target Number of 16 (meaning if I have a 14- Stealth, I have 3 rolls to get a cumulative success number of 16+ and failures result in 0).

Let's further assume that these rolls indicate movement. If I hold still and am concealed (like inside something) the Alien will automatically miss me. If I am completely uncovered in its line of sight, it auto-sees me and kills me. But the general situation is that I am moving through a mapped environment and I get one Walk/Run/Sprint move per roll. The movement type adds or subtracts from my roll.

  1. Walk: +0
  2. Run: -2
  3. Sprint: -4 (in the game, sprinting is death if the Alien is on your floor)

If we assume Ripley's Stealth is 14- L2 (meaning she's very stealthy for an average person) she'll walk carefully everywhere, roll three 10's on average, get 12 SP's, and get seen an eaten by the Alien.

The game adds the option of crawling, though. There are no explicit rules or crawling in JAGS--but let's say that Crawling gives you 2 yards of movement per roll (about half of a normal Walk score) but gives +2 to each Stealth roll. Ripley now has a 16- Stealth score for each roll if she crawls: her average roll will get her 18 SPs and she'll be safe!

The problem is, of course, that's not reliable and, also, if she makes noise (combat, opening doors, whatever) then the Alien starts looking for her. If the Alien suspects she's there--let's say she gets within 2 of it (so if she only makes it by 17 or 18 or something happens like she has to shoot someone) then it starts looking and it gets a roll to re-set the Target Number for a while. If it rolls a 10, nothing changes--but if it rolls less than a 10, the difficulty goes up by the number less than 10. Let's assume that its hunting doesn't make it's Target Perception worse, though--so she has a 50% chance of no change--but a chance of the roll going up by one or more.

A Success Point Pool
In the game Amanda Ripley cries out for some kind of Trait (probably a Character Point trait--but maybe Archetype Trait that helps her with Stealth). Firstly, she's unlikely to have formal training in Stealth (she's an engineer)--but she's small, quick, can move very quietly. Let's call this "Sneaky," charge 4 CP for it, and give her 4 Success Points that can only be used for Stealth Rolls and recharge every "scene" (level of the station, in this case).

This means that Ripley can fail by up to 4 one time per level and not get eaten. This gives us some buffer for failure--it also gives us some drama if these get eaten away early on in a level.

Secondly, let's give her some actions other than crawling.

HIDE: If the alien is "looking for her" meaning her last drama only beat it by 2 or she made a noise of some sort, she can choose HIDE which is non-moving, requires a hiding spot within [Move], and then doesn't move her for the rest of the drama. It gives +4 SPs to the roll she makes to HIDE. Furthermore she gets to keep her score while hiding--so the Alien will probably give up.

Example: The Alien is looking for her after she shoots an android. Roll one, she has a 16-, rolls a 12 (+4 SPs). But the GM makes the Alien's Perception roll on the table and it rolls a 6, making her new Target Number: 20. She elects to take her 2nd Roll to Hide.

The map / GM determines the hide spot is within 4 yards (+0 Walk) so she declares that and gets 14 (Stealth) + 0 Walk + 4 (Hide) = 18-. She rolls a 10, +8 SPs.

She is now at 12 SPs--but needs 20 or it sees her. Her roll is another 18- for remaining hidden--but not moving. She goes for it, rolls a 12--that's only 6 SPs. (she keeps the roll she ran in with--so running to hide kind of defeats the purpose). She ends the roll with 4+8+6=18 SPs.

She spends 2 from her pool to avoid being eaten!

DISTRACT: She can throw expendables (flares, cobbled together noisemakers, cans of food?) to make a noise somewhere distant and send the Alien looking. This requires a successful Stealth roll to throw--if failed the Alien gets an immediate perception roll, minus her SPs generated to see her. If it works, the Alien will (a) Start Looking for her (meaning it gets a roll where every score below a 10 adds to the Target Number) BUT: she can make a Run move at +0 (for a flare or can) or even +2 Stealth for a Noisemaker (it's so loud it covers her running). This is a way to either get to far cover, exit a level, move through a wide open area, etc.

Also note: The Alien will kill other life-forms in the area so if you distract it in the direction of people it wasn't attacking, it'll see them (exactly how THIS works in the game is ... a mystery: it does find them and kill them--but it seems to be "hunting" Ripley--it certainly doesn't find them and kill them as efficiently as it does Ripley!).

Other Thoughts
I think there would be room for player-generated ideas such as getting a less-than +4 HIDE for laying flat under cover (something you can do in the game). We'd also want to figure out how the motion-sensor works ... some stuff like that.

One note: Why does Amanda Ripley have Stealth L2 14-? Probably because it was a small number of points and she's a space-faring PC whose player knows the value of being sneaky. What about the (hypothetical--but kinda pricey Sneaky Trait?). Well, in this case, the player knows that the game may well involve the character hiding from danger rather than shooting it out and has that trait as more expensive than L3 (which will, in a non-Drama situation ignore negative modifiers--but will help more in a straight-up Stealth roll if they make the 14- roll). Secondly, in Dramas, L3 would be more cost effective (2 CP for +3 to the SPs)--but this gives more (+4).

Obviously you'd want L3 for the Drama-after-Drama-after-Drama situation (where the professionally trained expert Ninja would be actually skilled at bypassing Aliens by stealth) but the trade-off seems worth it.

The GM might well provide things "along the way" on a level that could re-charge the SPs (for example, finding a video-diary 'cut-scene' or reaching a "com-terminal access" (save) point? This would go well towards making the SPs battery worth more.

This framework might not be perfect--but it could be cool. It could be a tense, exciting episode for a stealth-based character.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Gaming: Alien Isolation

If You See This, You're Screwed
I am playing Sega's Alien Isolation. Let's talk about what it has to teach us as an RPG. The first part reviews the game. The second discusses it in context of JAGS and tabletop gaming (and has spoilers).

Alien: Isolation
Video games have not been especially kind to the Alien franchise. There have been some decent Alien vs. Predator titles--but Colonial Marines was a new kind of bad. They've also been hamstrung by the need to make the same game over and over: you have three story lines (Alien, Predator, and Colonial Marine) and multiplayer (which the Alien is a load of fun for) and with all that load the story is kinda 'eh.'

Of course the Dark Horse Alien comics kinda had the same story over and over too (which was also the same meta-story for Alien, Aliens, and Alien 4): Humanity is fascinated by the Alien, can't contain it--and it ends ... badly. Metaphorically the Alien is a cross between contagion (don't let it on the ship) and demonology (studying it is as dangerous to the scholar as to whatever "target" they intend to use their bio-weapon on).

That people could kind of get away with telling the same story over and over speaks to the dominance of the Alien as a villain. It's a genius antagonist: the kind of perfect-storm of a once-in-a-lifetime scary script (the alien as a kind of physical incarnation of rape is something that would be ground-breaking today), a master-work by the then-relatively unknown HR Giger (he since made other movie monsters--but none of them attained the prominence of The Alien), Ridley Scott at the top of his game, and a young crew with a handful of known actors that gave a collection of amazing performances.

So by the time we're more than 30 years from the initial release it's fascinating that someone was finally able to make a game that takes us back to the Nostromo.

Kind of.

In DLC (Downloadable Content)--something you pay extra for.

But the point is that the actual Alien: Isolation story feels very, very appropriate for the Alien franchise. It takes place between Alien and Aliens--Ripley's daughter has grown up (her mother is in cold-sleep in a lost shuttle after the first movie). The Nostromo's flight-recorder has been found and taken to a space-station orbiting a massive gas giant.

Ripley (the daughter) gets on a space-ship and heads out. She gets separated from her crew due to an explosion and finds that (a) the station had been nearly abandoned by its corporate owners, (b) there are insane androids (Working Joes--primitive looking compared to Ash and Bishop--but ... uhm ... plenty deadly), and armed, murderous, renegade survivors. Oh, also? (C): There's an Alien.

The game is a stealth-er where you have weapons--but they can't kill the Alien and you need to sneak around completing missions to try to get off the station. When the alien shows up, if it sees you, you're in big trouble. The developers did some lovely The-Alien-Kills-You sequences ... and you'll get to see a lot of them.

The game is tense, gorgeous to look at (if not all that interactive: there are a lot of objects you can't do anything with) and nails the space-retro look of the first movie. Its art-direction is pitch perfect. I played the game on Easy, knowing it had a reputation for being frustrating: and it is still a challenge on that level. It's not (as far as I've gotten) incredibly deep--but it is brilliantly done. It feels right, looks right, and creates a sense of dread.

I'll also note that the Alien itself is more the up-right creature from the first movie than the crouching creatures from the second (insofar as we can say there's a real distinction). It's also not "invisible." Between hiding in lockers or under beds and peering out, you get a pretty good look at it--and it holds up well. It moves with menace and intent. It hisses, jerks around--disappears into ceiling vents--and when it sees you and you hear that hiss? You're screwed.

The game is excellent (I've not finished it).

One Note: The Nostromo -- In the DLC "Crew Expendable" you see the original cast and you get to choose one to try to get the Alien out the Nostromo's air-lock. The sets are EXCELLENT this looks like the Nostromo, has a couple of decks, and even the voices are decent. The ability to render The Nostromo in something approaching movie-like fidelity has probably existed for a while but this is an excellent job. If you want to "play Alien" this comes pretty damn close.

Gaming Alien: Isolation
What stats would you give The Alien? Well, if we kind of "split the difference" across the various media (the original script had the Alien biting off Ripley's head and talking in her voice ...) the Alien is:

  1. Bigger, stronger, and faster than an average human. It is not faster than the eye can follow. It is stronger than a strong man--but does not seem strong enough to, say, lift a bus. 
  2. It has an exoskeleton that makes it virtually impervious to hand-to-hand combat, probably very resistant to hand guns, but not immune to auto-fire from an assault rifle (I think in Alien: Isolation you can't kill it--and you do get a shot-gun. So maybe the Alien there is tougher?). In the game you can flame-thrower it and it runs away. It doesn't die.
  3. It has claws, teeth, extendable teeth, and a long stabbing tail. It can kill a human in a single hit reliably. This means it likely needs to clear 10 PEN damage with its tail.
  4. The extendable teeth would be additional bite-damage, only usable in a Grapple/Grab (which would fit with how it uses them in the movie).
  5. It has good senses--but not incredible ones (?)
  6. It is very hard to see: it has good stealth.
  7. It can climb almost sheer walls.
  8. It has all the acid-blood you can buy. If you are near it and you wound it, you will get acid on you and, if you can't ditch your armor, die.
The alien, minus the space-ship killing blood, could be less than 24 AP (I'll put a package together when I'm not on a laptop). The blood is an issue since the characters are afraid it'll eat through the hull of the ship and the Nostromo seems to have a really, really thick metal hull. JAGS has the Acid Blood power--but does not go into detail about how it might better dissolve metal or something--if the acid blood does 100's or 1000's of points of damage then, yeah: the Alien costs a fortune (in Aliens, though, they had to ditch armor--they didn't just instantly die--so it might do 8 Damage and ignore another 8 DR each Round for 3 Rounds or something?).

Also, notably, in Aliens the the xenomorphs bash their way through a metal bulkhead. That speaks to doing a really large amount of damage (assume the thing has 9 DR armor and something like 500 ADP to tear down? It could have more based on weight and construction). If we assume the Alien hits for 30 IMP damage, it could tear through such a door (remember: the door is solid metal--but is not literally armored)--but would do it more slowly than in the movie. I attribute this to dramatic license rather than that the Alien can crumple several inch thick metal in a matter of seconds ...

The Game Itself
The game Alien: Isolation would not be especially fun to play out as they've done it. The reliance on stealth would likely be handled as a Drama where you would be making rolls against the Alien and would have actions like "create distraction" (with the tool used to create the distraction giving various pluses) or hide-in-locker (if there is one nearby), and a plus for crouching (half-rate movement).

I'd probably give Ripley a set of Success Points she could use during encounters--thus, the Alien would "eat away" at her defenses (when she is fully stocked she can almost certainly hide from it--but as she spends the points, they run out).

The game would call for specific maps with hide-points pre-determined (you could do it without this--and just roll to see if there's a good hiding spot nearby--but part of the game is being aware of where hiding places are so you can hang out next to them).

How would you handle the Alien running away when it's flame-blasted? That's a good question. In JAGS, when you get flame-blasted you either take damage or not. What the alien would do in the basic game is get hit on the way in and, if not Dazed, just chow-down. That's not how the game plays.

JAGS has some hooks for this kind of event--but they're not well developed. Firstly, the Alien could take a "run-away" 'defense' maneuver (and, presumably, it gets to do so during a move-action). This means that you can kill it--but every time you go to flame it, it takes the run-away dodge and gets to run. 

That's weird: short defensive actions usually don't move you that far (although we're talking about that for another power).

Another possibility is that the Alien has (a) a lot of regeneration and (b) a special power that makes its response to taking either ADP or being Dazed result in a "run away" action for the 8 REA cost of being Dazed (in JAGS, when you are hurt, you make a CON roll, if you miss it by a little, you lose most of your Action Points--REA--and are 'Dazed.')

In this case, changing the effect from being knocked down or whatever to "it runs" still costs it the REA--but it moves away. This is a pretty good power--especially for something that can run really, really fast. But it might not be super-expensive.

The result of this would be you flame it, the flamethrower reliably Dazes it, and if that happens, it runs. In this case, it would sometimes simulate what we see in the game (that it gets flamed and runs) but you'd also have: flamed and nothing (it eats you), flamed and stunned (it eats you), and flamed and unconscious (you kill it).

It might also have ADP with a clause that "dazes it" (or makes it run off) after it has taken the damage. This might even be "outside its armor" the way a Power Field is. This power doesn't exist--but would represent a way to inflict wound-effects (of whatever sort) on something even if you couldn't really hurt it (it has a lot of armor). 

In this case it would need enough ADP that there is no way a handgun can hurt it--but a flame-thrower can. Maybe the flame unit does 30 IMP flame damage? That would kind of fit its "rifle-like profile." Notably, this ADP would heal nearly instantly out of combat. It would also put a limit on how much you could hurt it before it gets mad (after being dazed / cornered) and then kills you because it has around 12 armor and your weapons literally can't hurt it much beyond that.

As a final note, the rules for shooting something with a grappling gun, having the grappling hook get stuck in it, and then having the thing pull itself back on the cable are, again, something we don't generally model. That isn't because we don't think it could happen / be cool--or because we didn't think of it (we thought of a LOT of stuff)--but because the handling time to see if certain weapons "pierce and get stuck" is pretty high compared to the number of times you'd likely care about that.

A weapon ... like a grappling hook ... designed to stick to things, though, might be a case where special rules would commonly be in force. In this case, if it penetrates and does a minor wound or better--or gets 1x Damage or better--it's hooked. Ripping it out does as much damage as it did going in and (probably) requires a WIL roll. Anyway, after that, you can make Offensive Grapple rolls to drag people around and so on.

A really good Stealth Drama with rules for using terrain, expendable items (in the game, Ripley has flares, noise-makers, can bang a wrench on the wall, and so on), and Success Points could, potentially, make for a tense experience. Since unlike the computer game, you'd only get one failure (assuming the PC's death ends the game), you'd want to calibrate the number of missions and dictate how the SP pool regenerates or how you get more--maybe for solving more of the mystery?

The Alien itself isn't a huge amount of points--but to get some nuance in its play you'd probably want new rules (we considered putting extendable jaws in JAGS Archetypes--but since here was really only one thing we could think of that had it ... well, we already had Acid Blood ...).

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Stanley Parable

This weekend I played through ('through') a new computer game called The Stanley Parable.

It blew my mind.

Saying anything about it would risk spoiling it--so I'm going to say this: if you liked, say, Portal because it brought you "outside the box" of puzzle games and turned into a story that was surprisng and psychotic, play The Stanley Parable.

If you played Antichamber and enjoyed it for its, again, reality confounding architecture combined with attempting to, sort of, convey a deeper meaning, you should play The Stanley Parable.

If you liked the thousands of varied guns in Borderlands 2 you may not find much to like in The Stanley Parable--there are no guns and virtually no violence of any kind.

Here come the spoliers ...

The Stanley Parable and the Paper and Pencil RPGs
You really, really ought to go play it if you even think there's a chance you'll like it. It won all kinds of awards.

I'll wait.

The Stanley Parable and What You Should Know
Did you? No? Dude. I'm telling you.

The Stanley Parable and the Railroady Game Master
Okay. I tried. Chances are you just read straight down here and thought: if it's all that good, I'll pick it up after reading the commentary.

Your loss.

The Stanley Parable is the story of office drone Stanley who works day in and day out in room 427. One day he notices that all the people have vanished. He sets out into his office-complex to try to find out what has happened. This is all voiced-over by a British narrator who explains things--including some of Stanley's presumably inner dialog.

When the narrator says you go left, though, you can choose to go right. When he says you go up to your boss's office, you can choose to go to the basement. Taking these branching paths (and finding various Easter eggs) leads to a variety of different endings and takes you into more and more surreal territory.

It's hard to explain: here's a picture.
At some point you have gone so far off script that the narrator provides you with a yellow line to get you "to the adventure." You just need to follow it (note: it doesn't lead to the adventure).

In another sequence the narrator becomes fed up with your (apparent) greed and guile and wills into existence nuclear bombs and a 2 minute count-down clock. There are all kinds of buttons--but there is no escape (that I know of).

At one point the narrator provides you with an admittedly very pretty environment--but there's nothing to do so you commit suicide (it takes some doing) to get back to the game.

The narrator even provides other games (minecraft, portal) when you clearly don't want to play his game.

And so on.

If you have dug around the marsh of "RPG Theory" (or 'RPG theory' depending on how you capitalize it--it turns out that despite having discussions about the capitalization the resulting theory absolutely no better or worse for it--there's a lesson in there somewhere) you know about the outrage that exists around 'railroading.'

The practice of 'railroading' is, to some degree, taking agency away from a player in a circumstance where they ought to have it.

An example could be using a literal "plot force" to turn the characters around and take them back to "The story."

It could be secretly cheating at dice rolls to make sure your master villain escapes when they 'unexpectedly' attack and 'defeat him' in the first scene (in quotes because if you did not expect that you are an idiot).

It could be all kinds of things in between (having the character's superiors call them and hector them to "Get on the case" when they are doing something the GM feels in non-productive).

And so on.

Most people who think a lot about RPGs--and even RPG Theorists--think railroading sucks.

To be sure there's some gray area. Maybe having whichever witness your character questions provide the clue isn't railroading. Possibly having the GM get you "back to the story" in the event that you'd wandered off course is a good thing so long as everyone was having fun.

Maybe it's okay to have a game where before hand everyone kind of agrees on what's going to happen and then, if people deviate from that it's kinda on them and the GM can say "Hey, this was the go-back-in-time-and-kill-Hitler game ... not loot the Nazi-Art game ..." or what have you.

I'll explain The Truth (TM) about railroading in another post some time--but suffice it to say that while not everyone agrees on specifics all the time, most people agree that getting railroaded does, indeed, kinda suck.

The Stanley Parable and Railroading
The First Thing You Should Know
Here's the first thing you should know about The Stanley Parable--and I hope you played it--It was NOT (so far as I can find) based on pencil and paper RPGs. It was a meditation on computer RPGs which are, of course, different. In a computer RPG there is a limited space you can explore and the time and effort to make new spaces and decision trees is ... high.

This is not entirely untrue in pencil and paper RPGs (Quick: Make the premier Brazilian Super Hero Team--we're challenging them to a duel!)--but it's a lot less true than for computer games. If I have my character unexpectedly go to the drug store the GM should not be at a loss to describe what it is like.

That said, the way the Narrator interacts as the GM is a lot like railroading.

He gets miffed.

He tries to integrate the character's choices into "his" story line ("But first he decided to go to the employee lounge ... for some reason ...").

He gets pissed off and kills you.

He walls up directions he doesn't want you to go.

He provides a handy pointer to "the action."

He asks you to trust him.

And so on. These are very human actions. There's even a few sequences where you wind up in "unfinished" areas with basic wall textures that haven't been properly rendered yet. This is very analogous to a GM saying "Well, okay: you ran off my map ... but there's nothing there as I haven't prepped for it yet."

The Second Thing You Should Know
The second thing you should know is that if you do everything he says--follow his story--you get to the good ending and the "completed the game" accomplishment. He doesn't railroad you into some abysmal dark place--he wants you to be happy--to have a good time ...

He's telling a story that pretends it's a mystery (never gets solved--what did happen to your co-workers?) but ends with you escaping the corporation's evil clutches. So what? So that's exactly what the rail-roady GM (mostly) wants: you to be happy (and, maybe, you to praise their awesome story--but hey).

Now, the plot is, you know, a bit boring. It could've used some combat or even problem solving (the code for the door he just gives you when you get there, and so on). That's, maybe, important too--but we'll leave that alone for just now.

The key here is that the ending is pleasant. The GM isn't trying to screw you.

The Third Thing You Should Know
You power struggled with the Game Master ... and you enjoyed it. That's where the game is--the game is in going off the "beaten track" and seeing what happened. I diverged on the very first choice and wondered about whether I'd have a very unpleasant experience (such as having to restart).

After that, I played along for a bit--but mostly I just went my own way ... and then determined that every time I was given a choice I could "diverge." For the most part the narrator was fun to argue with (the one where he's happy but you're bored and kill yourself was a little painful)--and I didn't take personal glee in pissing him off--but the fact of the matter is that the fun of the game hinges on you doing the "wrong thing."

And the underlying truth is that doing the wrong thing--and getting 'wrong thing feedback' is fun.

If there was no narrator and you could just go left to the meeting room or right to the employee lounge--and going either way brought no voice over--you just had to explore (maybe there'd be a map on the wall you could study?) the choice wouldn't be any fun at all.

If you made the game as a straight through puzzler (the boss's key-code is written in the executive bathroom? The spilled coffee cup early on provides a clue to something or other ...) it'd be a pretty tame pretty meaningless game.

Even if it had a bunch of the weird endings--and you just keyed on the actions? It'd be surreal--but it would not be as interesting or engaging.

The fact is: fighting with the GM provides a lot of the fun.

I think that fighting with the GM when you are complaining about being railroaded is half the fun too.

Now, I'll grant--I don't think most people like fighting with a GM as much as they like "good gaming"--but I think most people who have a bad experience with a GM don't go back over and over to re live it as RPG Theory (capital 'T') predicts they (often) will.

The Stanley Parable proves that breaking the game is fun.

There's a breaking the map ending too--jumping out a window--that doesn't go anywhere cool but does lead to an encounter with the narrator which lets you know you didn't "win." I don't know if the The Stanley Parable's map is unbreakable--but it's pretty tight.

The Fourth Point: Winning and Losing
There are several points where you 'win.' You get an achievement for completing the game. In another event the "credits roll." The museum ending is one of my favorites where you wander in a white room looking at game collateral and little notes from the designers until you turn the thing off.

There's even a point where a frustrated narrator shouts out "YOU WIN!"

All of these take you back to the start condition.

None of them are 'really' winning, you think--or are they?

If I were trying to be deep I'd say "That's up for you to decide." But I'm not--I'm trying to be brilliant, so I'll tell you the Truth (TM).

The Truth: Getting Out Of Power Struggle Feels Like Losing.

That's why you don't do it--why it's so hard to do--because it feels like losing and you hate to lose.

Don't you?

The way you 'win' The Stanley Parable is when you start cheating.

There will (probably--maybe you're hard core) be a point where you go online and see if there's a way to shut down the nukes. There will be a time where you log off and don't log back on--when you're done. There will be a point where you write the game designer and ask for your $15 bucks back as the game is clearly only worth $5.

The game designer will give you three vouchers for the game and tell you to vouch for it to your friends for $5 each (as that's what you claim it's worth) and you've made your money back.

He should've only given you two--but hey--he, like the Narrator, wants you to be happy.

That's how you win.

If you read this whole review without playing the game, you already won ... (you also lost--so the other lesson is that those two end-states are not as singular as you might believe).

The reason you "win" here is because you are no longer really in conflict with the game itself. You are now outside the context of The Stanley Parable and are dealing with a different set of parameters (I bet the guy who wanted his money back is still in power struggle with The Stanley Parable's Facebook page ...).

The Take Away
The takeaway (for me, anyway) is that The Stanley Parable is a meditation on power-struggle between the moderators of virtual worlds and their inhabitants. It covers, brilliantly (there is even a cheat-code 'ending') almost all the existing ground I can think of. It makes the game about that instead of the relatively bloodless "plot line" that it's supposed to be about.

The fact that it's (for most people, it seems) a very pleasant experience rather than that of generally being in power-struggle is because of its context: once you get that this is the game--rather than dysfunction--you can get into it pretty quickly--but that doesn't mean the fundamentals change.

For people who are still making a big deal about 'railroading' in their pencil and paper RPGs the lessons are still valid: you're still playing--you're still the one logging in over and over ... looking for the next fork you can take to see the endings you aren't supposed to.