Sketching is one of the ways I process grief. So. Uncle Stan.
Uncle Stan never really understood that his movies had become cult classics. Friends of mine, meeting him for the first time, would fan-boy over Ice Pirates or Krull, and Uncle Stan would just… kinda nod and smile and move on. Or look confused.
After a holiday dinner one night (I want to say it was Passover, but can’t swear it) we somehow got onto the topic of Ice Pirates. Probably me trying to convey to him how many people loved it (even though it was cheesy).
Uncle Stan: Ice Pirates… I think it had a different name once. What was it…?
Me: The Seventh World.
Uncle Stan: Wonder why I named it that?
Me: Because, back then we still considered Pluto a planet, and if you were coming into our solar system from the outside, earth was the seventh planet in.
Uncle Stan: Huh. That was clever of me.
Here’s something I drew up to help me with character creation on the current game. It’s an RPG, so players will get to choose from various backgrounds. I’m not certain all of the variables I have here will make it into game, but it helps me keep track. It will also be useful to our UI designer (when we get a UI designer). They’ll be able to see what I was thinking, and come up with a much better way to represent it in the finished game.
Since the player can mix and match, I need to make sure all of these elements combine well. Functionally that means having a paragraph for each option that won’t contradict the other choices you can make. That’s the next step. I’m really excited about the age range we’re using. That’ll let me talk about characters in different stages of their careers and families.
And yup, there is a gender slider in there. It will have some effect on the character summaries, but not as much as you might think. Because we’re normalizing fluid gender identities in this game. Which means… the characters will treat it as normal, and rarely worthy of mention. Gender will not gate career backgrounds, family relationships, or appearance options. And everyone gets to pick the pronoun they prefer.
In broad, hopefully non-spoilery, strokes: within the first few minutes of the game you know who your character is (head of security for Sarif Industries), how he’s connected to the other characters (head researcher is his ex-gf, who he clearly still cares about, and who clearly still cares about him), and what his motivation is going to be. And it’s all handled so naturally. It’s not info-dumpy at all.
You start off with him chewing out a military official on the phone about providing stringent enough security when they arrive in DC. Which gives you a ton of useful information:
- He’s in charge of security
- The company he works for is powerful enough that military officials have to do what he says
- They’re going to DC very soon and it is a big deal
- The government cares about the company
All of that from just a few lines of dialog. Which is how it should be, but often isn’t. Beyond the dialog, the visuals tell the story quite well. Jensen (your character) is sitting in a relaxed position that shows confidence and control. The woman in the room with him is sitting hunched over a bit, tugging at her necklace. So she’s nervous about this upcoming trip, he’s not. There’s a news report going on in the background, talking about their impending senate hearing.
Jensen then teases her about destroying her necklace, which lets us know they know each other well enough for him to feel comfortable doing that. This isn’t a standard head of security and head researcher: they have a connection. He believes she’s brilliant and capable. She’s worried, but she’s okay with him talking to her like that. It’s great. Then their boss comes on over the communication screen telling them to get moving. In the following discussion, she tries to get Jensen to admit that he likes the boss just a little, which lets us know this position as head of security is relatively recent.
And I’m not going to go any further, because that would get spoilery. It isn’t a perfect game, and there are some things I take issue with: there’s a minor character whose dialog is straight out of the 50s era black maid stereotype (“I be’s here for you, Cap’n!”) and we do get a woman in a refrigerator.*
So far, I’m quite happy with the game.
*I don’t take issue with the dead/endangered loved one as motivation. I do take issue with it being so overused. And with the endangered loved one almost always being female.
Microsoft seems to be positioning the Surface against the MacBook Air. I’m not an Air user, so I can’t say how it compares. I’m shifting from my 2007 MacBook and my god-only-knows-company-throw-away-partially-broken HP Laptop (it was a freebie from my former roommate’s work, and as such, totally awesome). The Surface is more than sufficient to replace both of those.
I love the touch screen. It just feels natural. I also love the stylus. If you’re like me, and writing things out by hand makes it easier for you to brainstorm, it’s great. I’ve done a ton of that since I got it two weeks ago (confession, it was an Ambien purchase–but one I’d been debating for three months already).
The keyboard works just fine and is a great size for my hands. It’s a little unsteady on my lap (in part because my lap is just a tad too small for it when I sit cross-legged on the floor; it’s fine when I’m sitting normally in a chair). I found my old lap desk and that solved the problem nicely. It’s great on a table or desk.Â It also fits really easily into my bag, which I’d sized for carrying my Nexus 7 and a paper journal. I’m no longer carrying either of those (it was time, the Nexus 7 was flickering).
All of my regular software runs on it, which was actually a big consideration. Jim and I checked out the Surface RT several months ago, and it couldn’t run Chat Mapper. Which meant it was a no go, even though it was cheaper. With the Surface Pro, I can run Office, Adobe, Chat Mapper, Scrivener, etc. It also has some fun drawing programs. As a tablet… it doesn’t have anywhere near the apps Android or iOS have. It has some, and more are probably coming. However, there’s a way to run Android apps on it. There’s BlueStack, which I’m using, and it’s possible to dual boot. The latter isn’t worth it to me. I did find Bluestack has a tendency to crash the whole thing when part of the Start menu, but I don’t use that many Android apps. So not a big deal.
It’s a good laptop. An acceptable tablet. And lots of fun to draw on.
There’s this marvelous article on Kotaku at the moment explainingÂ the cyclical nature of the game industry, and why we all get laid-0ff so frequently. Go check it out.
finishÂ game–>launch game–>lay off devs–>develop game–>hire devs–>finish game…
I don’t need to explain this for folks in the game industry, but my non-industry friends always seem a little shocked when I casually say, “Yeah, got laid-off again.” It’s kinda insane as a business model. And short sighted. Which the article points out.
It would make sense, once you’ve built a team that works together well, to keep that team intact. It isn’t easy to find that many people who can work together and get shit done. And every time you build a team, there’s a ramp up phase while people figure out how to work together. But instead companies lay off large portions of their dev teams once a game launches because they’re trying to save money and, after all, they don’t *need* those people anymore. Nevermind six months later when they start in on serious development of the next game and they have to hire new devs. Because, of course, the devs they let go have gone on to find other jobs.
The thing that boggles my tech industry friends, and I totally get this, is how many man hours that wastes. You have to spend time finding candidates, grading candidate tests, interviewing, interviewing again… And many of your new hires will be unknown quantities. You don’t know how well they do their jobs, not really. Or how well they work with others.
I worked at one studio that had been a small, independent studio until they got purchased by a large corporate entity. And, just as the author of the Kotaku article says, corporate handed down strict budgets for each project. This was a bit more extreme than what he’s talking about, with trying to have a second project starting up already while you’re working on the first. They had to start up *multiple* new projects to justify keeping the devs. It was kind of ridiculous. If the main game under development didn’t need environment art at the moment, those artists would be shifted to another project. But then the main game would be finished with user interface art (for the moment) and need environment again, and those teams would get moved around. Again. It was a desperate juggle on the part of studio management, trying to do right by its employees while keeping corporate happy.
So morale suffers, big time. There’s no incentive to put your heart into a project when you know you’ll just be losing your job once it’s over.
The game industry gets away with treating its workforce like this because of the coolness factor, I think. Lots of people want to work in games. Lots of people will take crap pay in order to do that. Of course, the more experienced and senior you get, the less you’re willing to take crap pay. Which means you get fewer jobs. And there are always kids straight out of college who will gladly take those jobs. They won’t know what they’re doing. It’ll take a long time for them to build the skills.
There’s a reason the game industry skews young. The young don’t know what they’re worth, they won’t stand up for themselves as much, and they don’t have families to support. Moving to a new city for a job is still exciting, not a burden. Working until 9, 10, 11 at night is fun instead of exhausting.
As for me, and many other narrative designers, we’re even less valued than most other devs. Because everyone thinks they can write. So you end up with people whose specializations lie elsewhere writing your game. And then you have the company-wide playtests, or you bring in the mock reviewer, or you even go into Friends and Family Alpha, and you suddenly realize your story sucks. Often, it isn’t actually the story itself, but the execution that’s the problem. You have great ideas, but don’t know how to write dialog, so every character sounds the same and there’s lots of “As you know Bob, phase crystals work like this…” instead of fun story. And that’s when narrative designers get hired. Frequently on temporary contract, and primarily as firefighters. We get to fix the story, but we’re left with legacy stuff that no longer makes sense and we have to make it work.
I’ve had writers block for seven years. What I consider writers block. I realize others have different definitions. But. Largely, the joy had gone out of it. Writing was like pulling teeth. I was still good enough at it to make a living, but… My relationship with my writing had become adversarial. And I figured out why a few months ago.
Writing = Death
Oh, it doesn’t, really. It’s not a logical belief. And, when I go back and examine the events that lead me to this belief, I can even see that it doesn’t make sense. But. My internal mythology is that Carolyn’s death is what gave me my writing.
The first play I wrote was about Carolyn. It got produced. It won me awards. And all the plays that followed after–they got me the scholarship that let me go to Scripps. Hell, my career as a video game writer came out of my playwriting.
But the myth was that the price of my writing was Carolyn’s life. That I never would have written otherwise. Which isn’t true. And I can go back and look at my writing from before then. It mostly sucks, but what do you expect from an 11 year old? The play I wrote about Carolyn, yes, that may well have been my first *good* writing. Because I cared. Because I bled on the page. For the first time I was writing about something gut wrenching and emotional.
But you know what question I used to ask myself? If I would give up my writing to have her back. Because kids ask themselves stupid questions like that. Because they assume it’s their fault.
At first the answer was yes, but as time went on it began to change. And I was ashamed that I didn’t know. The more my writing became central to my life, the more ashamed I felt. And two decades after her death… there was a day when I finally realized that no, I wouldn’t give it up. I was no longer capable of giving it up…. and I stopped writing.
I neverÂ gave upÂ on writing. I just stopped being able to do it. Self defense. If me writing means people I love dying, well.Â It isn’t logical. No one person has that kind of effect on the world around them. But logic has littleÂ to do with fear.
I went onÂ a writing retreat years agoÂ with Jay and his then girlfriend, Shannon. I remember an evening talking with them about my block. And Jay telling me it was a matter of getting out of my own way. I was holding onto something, and he didn’t know what, butÂ it was keepingÂ me from writing. I just had to figure out what it was and let it go. And I remember, also, that nightÂ crying while they lay on either side of me, holding me.
The last few weeks, I asked myself that stupid, awful question again as Jay was dying. Would I give up my writing if it meant keeping him alive? Yes.
But he died anyway.
I think he would take a certain satisfaction in knowing he’d been right all along, that I was holding onto something and getting in my own way. And I think he’d Â be delighted he’d helped demolishÂ that myth of mine. But, oh, I wish he hadn’t.
So, Cormac and I are doing a start-up (which I will tell you all about at some future date) and we are trying to come up with a studio name. Please vote in the poll.
Here are some of our favoritest options:
For context, we’re working on a very character interaction focused RPG (interacting with crew member, building relationships/reputation). If you come up with a new name–and we use it–we will totally Tuckerize you.
A necessary clarification here: I like Dragon Age 2, and it is a good game, and it’s so easy to see how it could have been better. The infrastructure is totally there. I’ve learned more from playing it, in its flawed beauty, than I have from most games. In fact, I’ve been replaying it this week, which is what got me thinking.
Okay. Disclaimer done. Rant begins now.
Where DA:O gives you several emotionally different endings (you die, your lover dies, no one dies and you pay a devilâ€™s bargain, your best friend dies, you become co-ruler, you become the lover on the side for the ruler, you partner up with your assassin buddy as lovers, etc.)â€¦ That sentence ran away from me. Where was I?
Right. Where DA:O gives you endings with different emotional resonance depending on your choices in game, DA2 gives you one ending. Yeah, you can choose to kill or pardon Anders, but that doesnâ€™t really affect anything in the world. Oh, yeah, Sebastian might get mad at you. Whatever. Sebastian is annoying, and is a DLC companion, which means heâ€™s not central to the plot anyway.
The storyline of Dragon Age 2 is one unending series of failures. No matter what you do, it all goes to shit by the end.
First goal, get yourself and your family out of Ferelden and away from the Blight. Guess what? You kinda fail in the first 10 minutes of the game. Because no matter what you do, one of your siblings will die. Itâ€™s actually kinda cool, narratively, because the two siblings are very different and will interact with you in entirely different ways, and the choice of who dies is a result of whatever character class you pick. It does establish the premise that every action is going to cost you in this game. And, oh boy, itâ€™ll cost you big. But the fact remains, failure number one, right out the door.
You get to Kirkwall with your mom and surviving sibling, and a redheaded annoying guardswoman, but thatâ€™s a different issue. The entire first act is all about reclaiming the family name, dragging yourself and your surviving family out of the gutter and up into the nobility. Or at least the middle class. And making sure the Templars canâ€™t touch any of you. Guess what? No matter what you do here, partial failure.
You lose your sibling. No matter what decision you make, your sibling is no longer a part of your life (except for some possible cameo moments later, if they live). Either your sibling is going to die in the Deeproads, or survive by becoming a Grey Warden, which means theyâ€™re out of your life and will always have some pretty heavy duty secrets they can never share. Plus the dying early thing, the infertility thing, the fighting nasty darkspawn thing. Yeah. Sorry, sibs. Your life sucks.
If you donâ€™t take your sister with you into the Deeproads, when you get back, she’s being taken away and imprisoned in the Gallows by the Templars (you are a scary mage, lady, so weâ€™re taking you away and locking you up. Sorry, Bethany. But, hey. You’re still adorable.) So you know how such a huge part of wanting status was so you could protect your family from the Templars and make sure your sister never got locked up in the Gallows? Yeah.
Or, if itâ€™s your brother, he goes off and becomes a fucking Templar. You know, a member of the religious order that persecutes mages like you. Itâ€™s a complete betrayal of everything your family has fought for. But, you know, shiny uniform. And it does get him out of your shadow. Oh, and it makes you, his big kick ass sister who always outshone him, vulnerable to him. No family issues here.
Okay. So now, itâ€™s you and your mom in the mansion. Thatâ€™s kinda a success, right? You managed to keep her aliveâ€¦ (Can anyone see the foreshadowing here? Bueller?)
You are nobility. So you managed to get out of the gutter. Go, you. You also have partial ownership in a mine as a result of a quest in act 1 where you save a bunch of miners and clear out monsters from the mine. But that pesky mine just keeps having dragon infestations. So, go back to the mines to find a bunch more miners have died, but you save the rest. The mine is safe again. Itâ€™s totally a great idea for those guys to get back to work. Of course, by the end of Act 3, theyâ€™re all dead. Every last one of them. So all you did was prolong their lives working in a mine. Which is just the nicest and healthiest place for anyone to work. And then they died. Failure.
In Act 2 you also get to hook up with your love interest. Which is aways gonna have some wonky shit going on. Isabella has commitment issues, so donâ€™t act like youâ€™re really into her, okay?
Anders, well, Anders. What can you say about him other than, don’t. Seriously! Possessed mage! With a â€œsensitive guy pony tailâ€.
Fenris is hot, and has an amazing voice, but then he freaks out and runs. And you canâ€™t really blame him, because slavery. Who knows what the hell happened to him when he was a slave? PTSD for sure. You can wait for him for another three years, and he will eventually get his shit worked out and come back to you, and heâ€™ll even have your back in the end whatever you decide. Butâ€¦ thatâ€™s the best romance in the game.
Sebastianâ€¦ celibate sworn to the Chantry. The best you can get out of him in the entire game is a â€œchaste marriageâ€. You can pray together. Hot.
Merrill. Sheâ€™s adorable. Sheâ€™s quirky. Sheâ€™s like the librarian girl and mad scientist youâ€™ve always wanted to date all rolled up in one. Plus kittens! Oh, and demons. You donâ€™t mind demons, do you? She and Anders, by the way, are kinda clingy. What is it with clingy mages?
You canâ€™t romance Varric, which is a pity, because that chest hair is pretty fantastic. You canâ€™t romance Aveline, who I did say was annoying (red head guardswoman), but sheâ€™s at least a seriously competent warrior. Competence is sexy. It makes up for some emotional un-intelligence.
You can hook up with Zevran if you play your cards right, but heâ€™s not a main character, he doesnâ€™t stick around, and he doesnâ€™t even look like himself thanks to whatever weird changes they made to elven features between DA:O and DA2
You canâ€™t hook up with Cullen, which is a pity, because heâ€™s adorable. And he was so screwed in game one, you kinda want to hug him and make things work out right for him.
You can go to the Blooming Rose and hook up with a prostitute. Not my thing.
And then thereâ€™s the Arishok. I wish he was romanceable. I so wish. But heâ€™s not. What a waste of a gorgeous voice. And heâ€™s an interesting character. I kinda agree with him when he rants about how fucked up the city is. Actually, I agree with him on a lot of things. Heâ€™s a hell of a lot more competent than the Viscount who rules the city. And a lot more sane than Knight Commander Meredith who leads the Templars, or First Enchanter Orsino who leads the mages. And let’s not even get started on the ineffectualness that is Grand Cleric Elthina. But no matter what, youâ€™re gonna have to fight him. Which could have been cool with a little bit more emotional resonance between you and him. It nearly was cool. But.
Either you let him kidnap Isabella as punishment for her theft, thereby losing her entirely. Or you have to kill him. And I hate having to kill him. But I also canâ€™t convince myself to let him take Isabella. No matter what you do, heâ€™s gone at the end of Act 2.Â On its own, this is actually a perfectly good plot point for the game. But taken as part of a series of continual failures, meh.
Oh, and the Viscount is dead. Remember all that work you did for him trying to keep the city stable? Remember saving his son and trying to help out with their conflict? Yeah. His son is dead, now. And so is he. And there was never any decision you could make that would change that. Really, the end of Act 2 is pretty depressing.
Act 3, you have the Templars and the Mages frothing at the mouth to have a go at each other. Initially, I find the mages more sympathetic, but by the end of the game, I just want both sides dead. And guess what, thatâ€™s what you get! I guess thatâ€™s kinda satisfying, getting to kill the dumbass leaders of both factionsâ€¦ But you spend so much effort trying to make peace between the two sides, and nothing you do makes a difference. And you canâ€™t convince that ineffectual head of the Chantry to get her head out of the sand and do anythingâ€¦
But I get ahead of myself. You remember your first ever goal in the game? To keep your family together and get everyone somewhere safe? Yeah. Your mother dies in Act 3. No matter what you do.
Itâ€™s actually one of the more effective storylines for me. That ending is just gruesome and heart wrenching. But the fact of the matter is that at this point of the game, you have completely failed. Your entire family is either dead or taken from you by the wardens or the Templars. And you never had any chance of making it turn out differently.
When you resolve Varricâ€™s storyline, you end up killing his brother. When you resolve Merrillâ€™s storylineâ€¦ god, poor kid. No matter what, sheâ€™s screwed. No matter what, her mentor and mother figure bites it at the hands of Merrillâ€™s pet demon. And she is completely rejected by her people. And her entire quest to save her people through studying old and forbidden magic? Total failure. Congrats.
Isabellaâ€¦ You know, I donâ€™t even remember whatâ€™s up with her. Was it all resolved with the Arishok?
Fenris, you do at least get to kill his former master if you so desire. Or you can let him take Fenris back into slavery. I always kill the bastard. That is satisfying. That is one of the few moments I find completely satisfying. And if you romanced Fenris, you get back together and heâ€™s with you through the end.
And then thereâ€™s Anders. Who betrays you. Again, no matter what you do. He betrays you. He lies to you, gets you to help him make his stupid bomb, tricks you into aiding and abetting him in blowing up the Chantry.
The Chantry. The center of the religion. The main power in the city. The folks who control the Templars.
No matter what you do, no matter how much effort you put into making peace between the Chantry/Templars and the Mages, Anders starts a fucking war. The end.
Okay. Maybe not the end. Not completely. You do get to kill the obnoxious leaders of both sides. Knight Commander Meredith, who is just evil from the get go. And then Orsino, the First Enchanter. Who was a sympathetic character. But then he goes batshit and eats his apprentices (or, well, uses their bodies to create a grotesque golem creature with him as the head). And, and! Turns out he was totally in on that crazy shit that got your mother killed. Ass.
So, basically, all the authority figures in the game die. Unless you let the Arishok go. And heâ€™s the only competent one, so I guess him having a chance of survival makes a certain amount of sense.
Your entire family dies. Wait, no, your alcoholic asshole uncle who stole and the gambled away your motherâ€™s inheritance and then sold you into indentured servitude and bitched at you a lot? Heâ€™s still around somewhere. As is his illegitimate daughter, I think. Sheâ€™s kinda cool. But theyâ€™re not hanging out with you.
The religious war you tried to stop is happening.
Youâ€™ll lose all of your companions, except your lover, unless Anders was your lover and you decided to kill him for the whole starting a war thing (and really, donâ€™t get involved with Anders).
The game is one long failure of a life. No matter what you do.Â Your choices don’t matter.
This in part is due to middle of the story syndrome. DA2 has to bridge between DA:O and DA3. Itâ€™s got major limitations because of that. There has to be a religious war, so that has to start in DA2. Thereâ€™s probably stuff going on with the Arishok and his people (the Qunari). They are conquerors and they will be coming after the rest of the world, so we need to set that up, too.
The main character of the game has to be central to all of this, but the way they did it, youâ€™re just running a maze where nothing you do makes a difference. Instead of making the player feel important, it makes you feel powerless.
If you want to look at the game philosophically, itâ€™s a great treatise on nihilism and the ultimate heat death of the universe (not literally, but I feel the same way when I think about the heat death of the universe). I just happen to find that depressing.
It plays like a novel. Itâ€™s actually a pretty good novel. But I play RPGs to feel agency. To feel like my actions have meaning.
So Dragon Age 2 had a lot of great things going for it. Tension, motivation, gorgeous art, some awesome voice talent, plenty of interesting characters (plenty of blah characters, too, but whatever), and some witty banter. And it does a great job of carrying through on things that happened in the first game. But you only get the illusion of player agency. In the world of DA2, nothing you do changes anything.
Abandon hope, ye who enter here, because you’re screwed whatever you do.