Sunday, April 26, 2009

kudos 2

I love me some indie games. If there's one thing that can combat the stifling lack of creativity that dogs the larger game developers, it's independence. Small-time operations working on limited budgets and resources can periodically produce ground-breaking games because they have less to lose and can experiment more. See Armageddon Empires. Also, World of Goo. Also, Dwarf Fortress.

For this reason, I keep a close eye on indie games and try to support them when I can. If you're interested in seeing what's out there right now, check out the winners of the annual Independent Games Festival. This NPR story on how graduate programs in video game design are feeding into the indie-game scene is also good listening.

So I've had my eye on Kudos 2 for a while now. It's creator, Cliffski, has released a number of positively received simulation-type games through his company, Positech Games. Kudos 2 is a blatant and unapologetic homage to Will Wright's disturbingly successful franchise, the Sims. In Kudos, you create an avatar and live their life for 10 years. Imagine the Sims model, but pared down - both in terms of play and interface. While there are some intriguing and creative elements to Kudos 2, I can't strongly recommend it unless you have a deep love of this particular genre.

(learning Kung Fu, to protect myself from muggers)

Here's my boy. I was pretty pleased to find that, as in the Sims, I could pursue a career in "science." I immediately started taking evening classes in science and biology, eventually applied for a teaching position at the local academy, and quit my crap job as a waiter. Pursuing a career is one of the main foci of Kudos 2, but unfortunately it doesn't quite provide you enough gameplay "rewards" to make your actions truly meaningful. Yes, you will earn more money as you become more educated and get better jobs. But nothing much happens at work - each day passes like the one before it, even after you get promotions or a job at a better company. You just click to commute, click to see how your day goes, click to commute home, and that's it. It's significantly more boring that going to my real job. It would have helped to give players a choice of "projects" that they can pursue at work, which are completed over time. Different projects could have different payoffs or long-term effects on gameplay.

(interesting, unique events like this don't happen often enough)

Kudos 2 focuses most of its efforts on your social life. And admittedly, this is where the strengths of the game lie. It can be challenging and fun to juggle a healthy social life, along with the demands of work, school, and general "upkeep" (cleaning the house, getting exercise, etc.). Every weekday night, after getting home from work, you can choose to engage in a single activity. On weekends, you choose two activities per day. These activities can be "social" or "solo."

Solo activities include jogging, walking in the park (with your dog, if you buy one), taking a bath, watching TV, reading a book, etc. Each of these activities affects a number of your "attributes." You've got a bunch of these to keep track of: happiness, energy, excitement, cleanliness, fitness, weight, confidence, charisma, IQ, etc., etc. ad infinitum. So for example, reading the newspaper will increase your IQ but also reduce your optimism.

(really? this is fun?)

Social activities involve your network of friends. You can go out for drinks, see a movie, eat at various restaurants, play soccer, or attend the ballet. Again, engaging in each of these activities will have an effect on your attributes, and part of the "game" is choosing certain activities that will alleviate your current deficits. Feeling uncultured and uncouth? Go to the opera. Overweight? Organize a weekly soccer match. Lacking charisma? Have fun at the comedy show and learn a few tricks of the trade. Furthermore, each of your friends has a set of interests that determine how likely they'll be to join you in a particular social activity, and how much they'll enjoy it if they come along. You might convince your friend Susan to go bowling, but if she'd rather be eating Chinese food, she's going to have a pissy time. Play your cards right, choose the right activities with the right friends, and you can end up with a healthy, extensive network of friends who adore and admire you.

(Hassan is a Confident, Cool Biologist)

Note that I got to be quite the lady's man, here. And you might also see a small heart above the top-most female in my network - that indicates I was able to achieve a romantic relationship with Helen. If your relationship with someone gets very close, and there's a chemistry between you, they'll call and ask you out. Relationships are tricky to navigate: your loneliness is significantly reduced, but you need to include this person in nearly all your social engagements or risk incurring their wrath.

There are some nice subtleties to gameplay in the social sphere. For instance, there are always 3 different movies playing at the theater. One is a hit, one mediocre, one terrible. If you go to the hit with your friends, you'll get large boosts to your happiness, excitement, relaxation, friendship, etc. Take them to the dud, however, and you might become ostracized. How do you know? In other social engagements, like going out to dinner, your friends will talk about that "really great movie...", or mention that there's an awesome rock band in town, or tell you to avoid the museum this week because the exhibition is boring. If you pay attention to these snippets of conversation, you can use them to your advantage.

I also like how your friends' traits rub off on you. In the game I'm playing right now, I have a friend who's very charismatic and honest. I make sure to always invite him to social gatherings, since all my other friends like him and he tends to improve the quality of the event. Also, he makes me more honest and charismatic. In contrast, if you hang out with dishonest or pessimistic people, you'll become more dishonest and pessimistic. An interesting and realistic feature.

But in the end, Kudos 2 is just too repetitive and dull, as well as a bit vague. There are far too many traits to track; they don't all fit on one screen, which is a frustrating design decision. And some are clearly redundant. Why include both "weight" and "fitness"? Why both "happiness" and "stress"? I also dislike how for some traits, a high % is good (90% happiness) whereas for others, it is very bad (90% weight). This means that I can't just glance at my attribute lines and quickly focus on which need to be addressed.

Most importantly, Kudos should have learned from the Sims that "life-simulators" can suffer from a feeling of "what's the point?" If you don't offer concrete goals and objectives, your player will eventually lose interest with the process. In one sense, this mimics real life - whatever goals we have are those we set before ourselves. But the fact is that real life also offers some pretty spectacular goals: like getting married, having children, creating great works of art & science. Kudos doesn't incorporate "existential" goals like these into its design and it suffers for it. You can form a relationship but it doesn't get any more serious (it can only degrade, leading to a break-up). You can't spend your extra time writing a book or working on a painting.

Kudos 2 is a decent simulation but, oddly, it focuses on the most tedious and mundane aspects of existence - like what dish to order at the Mexican restaurant. The biggest "goals" that I've found in the game are purchasing really expensive objects, like designer sunglasses. This hurts me to my anti-materialist core. It's successful insofar as it periodically makes me wonder why in the hell I'd play a game about my real life. I think lots of people had that reaction to the Sims and later, Second Life: is it fun to have a virtual self brush his/her teeth and take a piss? And then there were those truly absurdist moments in the Sims when you'd tell your avatar to sit down at the computer and play a video game. If you haven't yet seen this brilliant Onion piece, now's the time:

'Warcraft' Sequel Lets Gamers Play A Character Playing 'Warcraft'

On a final note, there is one redeeming aspect to Kudos 2: it's modable. Not infinitely so, but you can easily add your own content if you feel that something's missing from the game. Very quickly, I was able to mod in "going out to coffee" and "getting ice cream" (these were ideas posted in the forums), as well as "playing boardgames" at home. But it still felt too empty and meaningless. So I decided to add in Sex.

This actually made playing MUCH more enjoyable, which says something about how much meaning sex gives our lives. I designed it so that your charisma, confidence, cleanliness, and energy had to be high enough - and the person you asked had to have some interest in sex (analogous to an interest in "food," for example). This led to some amusing situations:

I was in a relationship with my girlfriend, Helen, and decided to throw caution to the wind and have sex with my friend, Nancy. She was always inviting me to rock shows, you know? So she agreed, but... well, you can read the text: "It really wasn't something I enjoy." Ha! Thanks a lot.

Later that night, I got the call from Helen:

But she put up with it - especially after I took her to the Opera.

I wish Kudos 2 had more depth to it, and I wish I wasn't looking at the same screen and interface all the time. It really cuts down on the longevity. But it's an interesting little diversion, and I certainly appreciate how quick it is to pick up and play, even when I only have 15 minutes or so. I was able to get it on sale for $6, so I don't feel ripped off in the least - but I'm not sure if it's worth the normal $15 tag. You'd be better off playing Defense Grid. But then again, if you're curious and want to help out an indie developer, you could certainly waste your money on much worse things. Like designer sunglasses.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

the witcher

Neither Aili nor I have had much time for blogging lately, what with the end of the academic semester and the wedding plans. It's a hectic time. I've been spending too much/not enough time writing a lengthy review paper on endogenous cannabinoids and steroid hormones and I've just about had it. Fortunately, I recently finished a draft and to reward myself, installed a copy of The Witcher that has been sitting on my desk since Christmas. While it has its flaws, it's a unique, entertaining experience well-worth exploring if you're into RPG's.

The primary reason why The Witcher contains an immersive world is that it's based upon a series of novels and short stories written by Polish fantasy writer, Andrzej Sapkowski. Thus, the world of The Witcher is fully fleshed and, more importantly, it breaks from standard Tolkein-esque fantasy tropes. There's no character generation to begin the game: you always take on the role of Geralt, the witcher.

Witchers are monter-hunters. They undergo extensive combat training, experiment with genetic modification and enhancement, and master alchemy and magic. The common folk respect, fear, and despise them. When the undead begin rising from your local graveyard, you hire a witcher to take care of the problem.

Rather than take you on an extensive tour through the plot or details of gameplay, I'll highlight some of the features that really make The Witcher stand out among its peers.

1. A dark & gritty world.

This is not a G-rated game. In fact, it's very clearly intended for "mature" audiences. There's adult content beyond mere violence towards fantasy creatures: drug use, explicit sexuality, and crude language. Overall, the effect of this is to create a more "realistic" fantasy experience, although at times, the juvenile writing does interfere (for example, when Geralt says something like, "Un-fucking-believable"). There are also adult themes that you typically don't see in games of this ilk.

For example, one sub-plot that runs through the game is the presence of the "Scoia'tael": a radical organization of elves & dwarves who engage in guerrilla terrorist activities, such as attacking human trade caravans and kidnapping. In this post-war world, humans and non-humans live in tenuous co-habitation. Famine, disease, and monster outbreaks have made life very difficult for the common people - and in their fear and desperation, they have decided to blame the non-humans for their problems. As you wander the world of Temeria, you'll encounter a great deal of racism towards non-humans and witchers that is often stoked by those in positions of authority, such as the church. Among non-humans, the Scoia-tael are a controversial organization: some support them (secretly), some find their tactics despicable. It's nice to see a game tackle a mature theme like this, and it makes the world seem more dynamic and politically interesting.

There are slums, mention of pogroms, and disposed corpses in the sewer. All this contributes to a feeling of danger and tension that helps make The Witcher an engaging experience.

(the sewers beneath Vizima)

2. Sexuality.

It's perhaps not surprising that most RPG's have eschewed sexuality. When aiming for a general audience that will likely include children, it's best to avoid anything morally delicate. And yet, violence is always a part of these games. Hmmm... Regardless, the lack of sexuality in RPG's gives them a Disney feel that detracts from your immersion and suspension of disbelief. The Witcher explicitly incorporates sexuality into gameplay, albeit in a highly juvenile way. As you progress through the game, you'll encounter a number of female characters that you can attempt to have sex with. Almost always, you'll have to satisfy some quest requirement to get them into bed. For example, in the city of Vizima, I was hired by the brothel madame, Carmen, to protect her prostitutes from some rapists and assassins who were attacking them by night. After completing this task, I was allowed to sleep with the prositutes "for free" if I simply brought them a bouquet of flowers. Every time you have sex with a character, you'll receive a collectible, virtual "sex card":

Hilarious, no? Well, there are two ways to view this. One: it's juvenile, sexist objectification of women in its purest form. It sends precisely the wrong kind of message to pre-adolescent and adolescent boys who are playing this game. Two: it's amusing and fun. I mean, RPG's always incorpoate these silly, non-vital side quests as part of the game. In Oblivion, for instance, you can spend hours and hours trolling the landscape for fucking roots. In The Witcher, you collect girls. Which is more entertaining, motivating, and to be perfectly honest, realistic? When I was single and in my 20's, I was looking for mating opportunities everywhere. That's how Geralt functions. The game even suggests at certain points that witchers are known for their sexual proclivities. You're a hired monster killer - it's been a long day in the crypt - you barely survived that cockatrice attack - so now you wander over to Shani's house to see if you can get some play. What's the harm in that?

3. Lore.

Other RPG's, most famously the Elder Scrolls series, have incorporated alchemy and lore into gameplay. But I really appreciate how The Witcher does this. Every monster you encounter has certain weaknesses that must be exploited if you wish to survive. For example, this delightful fellow is a Graveir. If you waltz into battle against one (or god forbid, several) of these without any knowledge of how to defeat them, you'll probably receive a beating. But through the course of the game, you'll find books and scrolls, and talk to NPC's with relevant wisdom, that teach you about particular monsters and their weaknesses. When you gather this information, it's added to your Journal's Bestiary. The Graveir, it turns out, it sensitive to silver. You're also told to use the "strong" fighting style against it, and if things are still difficult, you can coat your blade with Necrophage Oil. To make this oil, you need to learn the formula from someone and then gather/buy the correct ingredients. It's all very fun and logical. I was really struggling defeating a Hellhound until I used some Necrophage Oil and drank a potion which enhanced my reflexes (by slowing time down). In this way, I really felt that using Lore to my advantage was an essential component to progressing further in the game. Your character (and you) must be intelligent enough to use gathered knowledge to your advantage.

(the alchemy interface)

Overall, The Witcher is a damn good game. The fighting is enjoyable, although I suspect that it will eventually become repetitive. I especially like how the designers didn't shy away from group combat. If Geralt gets attacked by five zombies, he can switch to a "Group" style of combat that attacks everything within a close vicinity. The combat animations are universally impressive.

The greatest criticism of the game is that it suffers from some frustrating technical issues. It will crash-to-desktop every now and then. Loading screens occur with frustrating regularity (fortunately, the conceptual art displayed during these transitions is quite good and keeps you "in the mood" - see below). Apparently, this was a much more serious problem before they released the "Enhanced" version, which I'm playing. And I'm disappointed to see how much the same face-models are used over and over again. It was disconcerting to see the priest from Act I (whom I killed, for justifiable reasons) "reappear" in Act II - until I realized that it was just the same face model on a different character. Given that there are hundreds of characters in the game, I understand the problem - but other RPG's have solved this issue.

But nothing spoils the soup (just yet) and it's a testament to the game that I look forward to sitting down and spending a couple hours in Temeria whenever I get a chance.

(the hospital, where plague victims are treated)

Friday, April 17, 2009

it's blitz

I'm listening to the month-old Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs' release, It's Blitz! right now and I can't get over the transformation. This definitely isn't Fever to Tell - where's my dirgy "Rich," grungy "Date with a Night," and wailing, "I gotta man who makes me wanna kill"? Where's my New York garage rock reinvention, part XXIII?

Oh yeah, that was 2003. Like all bands with a spark of brilliance, the YYY's clearly seek to reinvent themselves on each album, delve into sounds that they enjoy without a concern for fan-boy expectations. It's Blitz! is bass guitar, rock overtones and Karen O's lovely voice, but it's also heavily synthesized, artificial, studio magic. I love it. "Heads Will Roll" really does make me want to dance. "Dragon Queen" is disco-shit, but damn it, it's good. I don't even mind the soft, oddly placed reflections like "Skeletons" and "Runaway" although they're the weakest points of the album (perhaps my opinion will change with time and further listens - one thing I've learned about the YYY's is that their albums just sound better the more I listen to them). Every song is bursting with sound, and infused with the unique YYY energy that makes me want to head-butt a dingo. Or something.

How are you not going to show your scar?
How are you not going to get high, high?

Track list:

1 Zero 4:25
2 Heads Will Roll 3:42
3 Soft Shock 3:53
4 Skeletons 5:02
5 Dull Life 4:08
6 Shame and Fortune 3:31
7 Runaway 5:13
8 Dragon Queen 4:02
9 Hysteric 3:52
10 Little Shadow 3:57

Friday, April 3, 2009

trippy-bizarro dancing animations

An oldie but a goodie...

Will stick in your head...