Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
June 2008
Effect-ive Storytelling

Role-playing games have been a huge part of video gaming since its inception, and much of their success comes from the captivating worlds they create and the stories they tell.  In the past, much of that environment actually existed only in the player's head, as the characters and worlds displayed were a far cry from anything resembling a reality.

As technology progresses and the game industry grows, there are amazing-looking worlds to be explored and sometimes there is even some depth to them.  I've been playing two very different role-playing games lately, and while both are fun, the mistakes of one were the triumphs of the other.

Variations on a Fantasy Theme

I recently played through Final Fantasy X for the Playstation 2.  FFX has been out for a number of years and while I had spent a bit of time on it when it first came out, I never really gave it the full run-through.  As a big fan of Squaresoft's Final Fantasy series, I felt it my duty to give it another shot.

Like every FF game before, in FFX you are a young adventurer who joins up with an unlikely group of friends and has to save the world.  FFX starts off with a bang as you find yourself, Tidus, in the middle of an attack on your city.  This attack eventually leads to you being consumed and moved back in time to a similar (though less advanced) world.  In this world of the past, you must find out not only what you are doing there but also how to defeat the ever-present Sin.  Yes, that's right, the enemy is Sin.

One of the many successes of previous Final Fantasy games was the creation of personal and memorable villains.  Nobody who has played through Final Fantasy 6 can forget Kefka's theme music or his insane laugh. Anyone who has been through FF7 will still remember the anguish when Sephiroth slayed Aeris.  Sadly, unlike these worthy predecessors, Sin just never feels like something really out to get you.

(Incoming spoiler alert) Sure, Sin was somehow connected to your verbally abusive Father, and sure it does kind of annoy you the way it kills just about every village you stop at, but it never really feels personal like previous foes. I mean come on, it's a magical flying whale that takes you through time. What can be so bad about that? I'm not sure if it was a problem with the concept or the execution of the concept, but the story really felt pretty flat compared to previous FF games.

Perhaps part of the reason things fell flat was that the advances in this iteration of FF were not advances in a good direction.  One constant change in FF games is the leveling system.  As your characters gain experience, different games have presented different options for advancing your characters.  Some have offered a job system where you specialize in a type of character, say warrior or healer, and gain skills in that area.  Others have given you advancement bonuses based on what items or magic you are equipped with. 

FFX created a system called a sphere grid where, as you gain experience, you can navigate around the grid and pick up advancements.  While this might sound innovative at first, because there are very few actual branches then your characters mostly just end up advancing in a straight line; moving them around the grid just takes up a lot of time.  I'm normally a person who loves character customization and leveling, but the sphere grid just felt like work.

Bad Scripts meet Bad Performance

As the first game of the FF series on the PlayStation 2, the designers had access to a lot of power that wasn't previously available.  While they certainly made use of that with some nice graphics and movies, they managed to negate all that goodwill by including voiced audio.  Badly voiced audio. Lots and lots of badly voiced audio.

The dialogue in Final Fantasy games probably had plenty of bad lines, but when you can read it rapidly then it just kind of flows along as part of the story and feel.  FFX forces you to watch hours upon hours of cut scenes that have some cringe-worthy lines.  There are some cases when you can skip through it, but much of it is not optional.

Again, great scripting is probably not something that a lot of games have down well but, like everything in life, you can play that down and emphasize other things.  Final Fantasy X made the critical mistake of drawing huge emphasis to this weakness which, for me, depressed the game as a whole.

The Way it Should Be Done

So, while FFX is definitely not my favorite Final Fantasy and I was frankly disappointed, there is a more recent and far more satisfying role-playing game that I have been enjoying: Mass Effect.

Mass Effect was originally released for the XBox360 last year and came to the PC in late May.  BioWare, the developers behind Mass Effect, are no strangers to fantastic role-playing games.  With huge successes like Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur's Gate and Jade Empire, it's pretty much guaranteed that I will pre-order any PC game they make.

Unlike many role-playing games, Mass Effect takes place in space and puts you as a critical player in a space drama involving ancient alien power, feuding alien races and, of course, saving all of humanity

You'll travel by ship, foot, and an awesome six-wheeled ATV.

One two-edged sword in role-playing games (and indeed in most games) is the concept of a guided track that the player and story moves along.  This progression, often referred to as rails, can serve to keep the action flowing but it can also be restrictive. In FFX, the rails were very restraining and very obvious; there were almost no choices in how the story progressed and all of the dialogue felt forced and unnatural.  Sure there were some side goals, but they really didn't feel like part of the flow of the game.  Mass Effect, on the other hand, does guided storytelling to perfection.

My captivation with the world of Mass Effect began at the very detailed and well-designed character creation.  While you don't get to change your species or even body type, you do get to customize just about every detail of your face.  Want an enormous nose and beady eyes? Sure, you can have it. How about eyebrows that make you look permanently surprised? Easily done.

While making a detailed head is fun, my character didn't really take on life until I got into the first bit of dialogue.  Unlike the stale and static dialogue of FFX, Mass Effect feels much more like an interactive movie than any other game I've seen.

Watching the character you create interact with others really brings the game to life

Each conversation is edited together like a movie, with the camera set at an angle to give focus and depth to the discussion.  What's more, you aren't just watching: not only are you choosing from the set of options, but the character speaking those words is the character you stylized, right down to every detail.

While the dialogue options are somewhat limited, they give a good range of snarky, evil, righteous, and indifferent responses which give the opportunity to play most any kind of character you would want.

I may sound like I'm gushing, but this is one of the few games I've played where the speaking parts aren't just the action segues--there is a well-told story here (not saying there aren't plenty of great stories in games, it's just that they aren't often presented well).

A Dark Side to the Story

While there is plenty to love about Mass Effect, it isn't without blemish.  For one, who thought it was a good idea to put dozens of elevators in every area of the game?  The first time I got in one of them it was kind of cool - there are relevant galactic news reports and some fun elevator tunes.  After the second or third time, though, having twenty or thirty seconds where I was stuck in this lift felt like torture

I can't fathom why they thought it was a good idea. Maybe it was a replacement for loading screens, maybe it was to show off the lighting and graphics, or maybe it was just to make you slow down.  Whatever the reason, it is ridiculously painful.

Sure the elevators are a downer, but at least they are a sign that you are in the game.  The bigger problem for many PC players is the restrictive form of Digital Rights Management that is being used to lock down the game.  I am, of course, against piracy, and I can even agree that some DRM may be necessary to reduce casual piracy (you are never going to stop the serious cracking).

While stopping piracy is a good thing, blocking or inconveniencing paying customers is not.  After I installed ME, I excitedly went to start the game when, wham Nothing. Couldn't start it.  I tried again, took out the disc and put it in again, nothing. Tried a few things, nothing.  I use Windows Vista so I'm used to having hyper-sensitive procedures, but there was no warning here, no helpful messages, just a $50 game that I couldn't play.

Finally, I tried going to the directory where the executable file was and setting it to Run as administrator, and that did the trick.  See, not only do you have to have the disc to install it (thankfully you don't have to keep it in the drive to play it), and the disc key, but the game must establish an internet connection back to its home servers to verify that it is a valid key.

Originally, even this wasn't enough and customers would have had to reauthenticate every ten days just to be able to keep playing. That has since been removed but even though you own it, you still can't install the game on more than three machines.

While decrypting electronics in-game is fun, trying to decrypt the game you just bought is not.

It's really unfortunate to have to talk about all this pain in association with a game that is so fantastic.  It's like having an awesome toy inside one of those evil plastic clamshell containers.  You know it's good inside, but do you really want to support it or cut your hands to get to it?

The decision to deal with all of this is tough, but for me, the fantastic game is worth even the pain of the copy protection, which is saying a lot.  BioWare knows how to tell a story and with Mass Effect, they have produced what will certainly be one of the top PC RPGs of the year. (Whether or not it is #1 depends on Fallout 3 later this year...)

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