I’ve just gotten around to playing “Fine-Tuned,” a 2001 work of interactive fiction by Dennis Jerz. It’s a fun piece about a 1920s dandy with an automobile and an opera singer given a strange job. I’m about halfway through, and the game reportedly ends in a cliffhanger (which is disappointing), but so far I’m impressed at how excellently the game puts me into the heads of its characters.
I’ve had a shift in my gaming tastes over the years. There was a time when I most wanted story from my games; that is to say, a narrative, an interesting series of events that needed not be too interactive. These days, however, I’m most interested in character and setting; I want to be an interesting person and/or explore an interesting world. Oh, I still want a good story, but it’s now third on my list of priorities instead of first.
“Fine-Tuned” does an amazing job of letting you roleplay its characters. Miss Melody Sweet, the opera singer, is proper and polite yet independent and practical, and playing her is a pleasant joy. However, it’s Troy Sterling, a daredevil-for-hire(-in-training) and all-around likeable guy, who steals the show. There’s an early sequence where Sterling, controlled by the player, drives to town, pausing only to clean up litter, rescue a baby bird, and wave to a passerby. It’s a joy playing the cheery and friendly Sterling. Read along in this edited transcript:
Saira is an explorer. Three years ago, she was a photographer, working to take pictures of exotic and dangerous wildlife. She is brave and athletic, able to leap from rock to rock without hesitation. Her eyes are trained to notice things hidden in the world around her, and her hand is steady as she takes each picture. She can scramble up air shafts, dodge hungry wildlife, and hazard cruel environments to achieve her goals.
Saira is a character piece. Continue reading
I’d like to take a moment to discuss a game that does some really interesting things with character and storytelling: Volition’s GTA3-em-up, Saints Row 2. Wait, where are you going? I’m serious. Here’s the thing: SR2, more than any other game I’ve played, makes me despise my player character. By the end of the game, my PC is the most reprehensible person in Stilwater.
SR2 is a game that borrows liberally from Grand Theft Auto 3 and its successors. The player character is a sociopathic criminal, doing a series of missions to gain power in a city while murdering thousands of people in the process. Playing a game like this, the player should expect to do horrible things; it’s a game (in this case) about a street gang leader taking over an entire city. These games set up an environment in which the player can suspend their ethical disbelief. The world is farcical, with corrupt police, over-the-top raunchy radio ads, and stereotyped characters. All of the characters with dialog are criminals, and none of the bystanders get enough characterization to make the player empathize with them.
But there’s something weird in SR2‘s approach. The middle of the game consists of three parallel storylines, corresponding to the PC‘s strengthening of her gang, the Saints, through destruction of three rival gangs: the Sons of Samedi, the Ronin, and the Brotherhood. The Sons of Samedi plotline is a drug-running crime story in the Tarantino vein. The Ronin is a full-on action movie, complete with katana duels. But the Brotherhood is the brutal story of the cold-hearted destruction of a man and his family.
I love tabletop roleplaying games. They are, in some ways, the perfect game. That being said, they certainly aren’t without their flaws. I’ve been working on a tabletop RPG system, and one of the things any creator needs to ask is “what’s wrong with what’s already there?” and “how can I make it better?” Here, then, is a list of the things wrong with tabletop roleplaying games.
My latest article is up over at GameSetWatch. It’s called “Personality in Team Fortress 2,” and it’s about how the memorable characters in TF2 enhance the gameplay experience by reinforcing character roles.
The Orange Box wins in my book for best characters in a 2007 video game package. Alyx and Eli Vance, GlaDOS, and the TF2 cast together are an amazing accomplishment, especially when you realize the games were released on the same day by the same company.
My latest column is up at GameSetWatch. It’s entitled “Integrated Character Creation in Spore“, and it discusses the technique of integrating gameplay with character creation instead of making it a totally separate mode.