All posts by Ravenshaw

In Time

The great question that drives Sci-Fi literature is what if?  In Time posits the scenario that it is possible to arrest a person’s physical deterioration in the prime of their life at 25.  The only downside is that Time, not money, becomes the global currency.  Everyone is gifted a single year at birth, which starts to run down the moment the individual reaches twenty-five, and can get more Time by working.  To keep track of your remaining Time, a subcutaneous green LED is installed in your arm, a handy torch in times of need but a lousy way of conspicuously showboating your wealth.

What if you could live forever?

Time as a currency is a great concept, and the film tries to explore what that would mean for the people living in that type of world.  The bits that work in this film are those examining this conceit, the idea that people are now explicitly working to live is heavy-handed but effective and the global cabal of super-rich immortals managing the system is intriguing.

One of the great joys of any sci-fi film is to see how the world has been altered from our own and trying to figure out the reasons for those alterations.  If you can see how the filmmaker’s choices flow from the ‘What If’ then the film is halfway there.  Problems arise when the choices don’t appear to be obviously related to the central premise or directly contradict what reasonable viewer might expect in the circumstances.  As I watched In Time I started thinking about the choices made by the filmmakers and came up with a few questions about the world itself.  I think in the main the world of the film behaves consistently, but I just think it is consistently incorrect in its basic premises of what a Time based economic future world would look like.

Where are the mobile phones?  There are a bunch of times in this film when using a mobile phone would save countless lives.  Where have they all gone?  The conceit that a minute of talk time would cost not just a minute of your life but also an additional minute to pay for the call is pretty funny and dark.  It would destroy the tension in the film though, so mobile phones have uninvented in the In Time universe.  The Internet also appears to be completely absent from this world too, but that’s not a major plot point….

Why are some time transactions done wirelessly and some require physical contact?  Why store Time in vaults?  It’s shown that individuals can easily wire Time from one location to another, so why would you need to store Time physically?  And if you can wire Time electronically, why can’t you wire from one individual to another?  The Time system employs contactless technology, why isn’t it possible to control Time via a mobile network?  It would be easier to control the masses if you could easily freeze their assets, so to speak, and also ensure that you’re never caught short away from the bank, as so often happens in this film.  Again, current technology has been uninvented to make the story work.

How do people younger than 25 pay for anything?  It is clearly shown twice that the individuals clock only starts running at the age of 25, and in both cases it is clear that they are starting with exactly one year left to run.  How have they managed to survive for so long without being able to buy anything or gain any additional Time?  I’m guessing that the world doesn’t allow under-25’s unrestricted access to anything they want, so do they have rationed supplies or some other means of sustenance?  If I knew that my clock was running at 25, I’d want to get a head start and start working early, but that doesn’t seem to be an option.

Why set up the system in such a way that people can steal time so easily?  Firstly, in the middle part of the film the protagonists go on a bank-robbing spree in a series of jobs that clearly echo Bonnie & Clyde.  Given that they are amateurs, with only two pistols, and that current banks are sophisticated buildings designed to stop that sort of thing, why are the future banks so easily robbed?  Have people forgotten how to lock safes? Secondly, throughout the film it is shown that you can steal Time from individuals by making physical contact, it is even implied that you could steal Time from someone sleeping without their consent.  A sure-fire way of protecting yourself from physical harm is to ensure that there is no way to steal Time this way.  I could understand if there was a piece of black market technology employed by the Minutemen to steal Time, this would actually be pretty cool, but there is no explanation for the ridiculous ease of Time stealing.

Aside from the Time Keepers, can anyone else alter the amount of Time someone has?  Could someone hack himself or herself to become immortal?  Clearly the Time Keepers are monitoring the amount of Time in the system, but enterprising ‘criminals’ would sure devise a method of counterfeiting/laundering Time, given the shoddy nature of the banking sector.

Why do people just stop?  Is there a kill switch implanted in the individual?  Leaving aside the ridiculous notion that any sane person would willingly allow themselves to enter into this devil’s bargain, how is this regulated?  Has the entire human race been genetically engineered to work this way or is the technology implanted at birth?  As it is a global economy, I’d assume that the human race has been genetically engineered with this kill-switch, otherwise there would be an out for anyone willing to have a natural birth, and who wouldn’t want that in the ghetto of Dayton?  If you could eke out a subsistence existence from the land, why get involved in the Time economy at all?  Why subject your child to the horror of this system?

I’m trying to think of why some of these things are the way they are, and I think its because the film maker’s want to use the way Time as a currency works as a direct metaphor for how Money works now.  Because of this they have to have Time be as easily disposable, stealable and storable as money is now.  Money can be in the form of a coin in your pocket, a series of digits in a computer or a block of gold in a central bank.  In Time wants to mirror these so that it can have bank robberies, Time theft and still have a massive linked global economy, but the problem is, if you were to start from scratch, which they obviously would need to do, why would you copy the current system?  All of its flaws are obvious and could be designed out if you could start again.

If you were in this situation where people are clearly dying around you, you had an ever present clock telling you when you were going to die and nothing to lose except the eight hours you had left, why the fuck wouldn’t you try to take something back from the bastards who have everything?  This is my main problem with this film.  One of the things that stops revolutions is the fear that you’ve still got something to lose.  If you’ve clearly got nothing to lose, or at the least only a few hours left to live, why wouldn’t you do something about it?  Dayton is a shit place to live, where there is essentially nothing to do except be jumped/killed by gangsters and/or work in a crappy job which screws you over when you don’t make quota.  The world isn’t shown to be oppressive enough to stop any sort of real resistance, as the first two that try are a metal shop worker and a dizzy socialite and they succeed in crashing the global economy without any support.  The question isn’t why they succeeded, but why no one else tried before them?  I can’t think of a reasonable answer.


You Owe It To Yourself…

Designers & Dragons

I think you’d struggle to find a more comprehensive history of roleplaying than this mighty tome.  The story of every major publisher from AEG to White Wolf via TSR and Wizards of the Coast has been chronicled in impressive detail.  This isn’t just a nostalgic look back on the highs of the industry it takes a look at the crashes, and also looks forward to those stretching the boundaries of the medium, either through the type of games they’re creating or the method they take in creation, distribution and development.

Game Changers

GTA 3 Coming to iPhone/Android

This might be the first toe-in-the-water experiment by 2K/Rockstar, but if it sells like you would expect, which it probably will, then you can bet your bottom dollar that it won’t be the last.  Expect further publishers to follow suit with portable versions of classic games.
High-end smartphones are more powerful and have more capable graphics processors than the Wii and what with the rapid turnover of hardware in the phone/tablet markets, how soon before they are genuine rivals to the PS3 and XBox360?  If these mobile devices are DLNA compliant, they could easily replace consoles as the premier gaming platform.  Who needs a console gathering dust under your telly if you can whip out your phone and play Angry Birds on the big screen one minute and GTA 3 the next?

What this portends is that iOS and Android are very real threats to not only the hand held market share of Nintendo but also the console market share of Sony and Microsoft.  The big two companies are trying to carve out a space for themselves in the front room, to be the centre of the multimedia experience.  You can see this in the deals that they’ve done with media streaming companies such as Netflix, Sky and the BBC, to shore up their position.  But what if you already have a device that can stream this stuff in hi-definition in your pocket? 
The future of content delivery is purely digital, for the simple reason that it can be controlled more effectively than physical media.  Unless you want to jailbreak your phone, running the risk of being cut off from all of your paid for services, it would be impossible to install software that could crack a video stream from Netflix, for example, as it would be instantly rejected by the closed system of Apple and quickly removed by Google on the Android Marketplace.  Also consider that very minor changes can be made to digital delivery systems to thwart hackers, whereas Blu-Ray is a standard that is likely to be very difficult to change.  Media machines based on physical media are increasingly archaic, which leaves the XBox360 and PS3 as pure gaming machines with a few tacked on bells and whistles that are nearing obsolescence.
So is there anything that is stopping mobile phones being used for big triple-A titles like Call of Duty?  There are technical limitations in the current graphical and processing hardware, but these will certainly be overcome in the next few years.  Some might argue that it is difficult to control an FPS with a phone or a tablet device, but with good developers this is not something insurmountable.  Even if it was a major problem, you could have a bluetooth controller linked to the phone/tablet for use at home.
Even if you can’t play Call of Duty on your mobile, who cares?  The most played games at the moment are those on the Wii, mobile phones and Facebook.  Popular games on the Wii with motion control, like Wii Fit and Wii Sports, could be easily replicated on phones with internal motion sensors.  You can already play Facebook games on your iPads and tablets.  The smartphone, in essence is already better than the Wii at playing games, and it’s already sold more units (the iPhone alone has sold 130,000,000 units compared to the Wii’s 89,000,000).

What’s missing is the belief that iOS and Android are also mainstream gaming platforms.  With the release of GTA 3, that could change dramatically.

Engines or Assets

A strange thought occurred to me a few days ago – is it feasible to license gameworlds?  Probably one of the most time-consuming and expensive parts of games creation is the extensive art design, asset building and debugging of virtual worlds.  This is particularly true of 3D games, but is also a factor in 2D games.  What if there were companies whose sole output is original area/world designs for use with other people’s game ideas? 

Rockstar could license Liberty City, for example, to third-party developers, why don’t they do it?
The most obvious benefit would be ease of development for smaller companies and lower costs.  While certain engines come with Software Development Kits and pre-built assets, there is still a great deal of work to do putting all of that together.  If a company could use a pre-built city or area, they would be free to concentrate on what makes their game unique.  It would be possible for game companies to produce AAA looking titles without the same cost. 
Its not all about the little guy, larger asset creation companies could re-coup development costs by licensing their worlds.  Movies, TV shows and the Music industry have been doing something similar for years.  Movies are sold again on DVD and Blu-ray, TV Shows are syndicated in different territories across the world and can be co-funded by several companies and music is licensed effectively on radio, TV, film and in games.  While individual games can be licensed for use in TV and Films, usually as a minor plot point or backdrop item, and companies are keen to license game engines, I don’t think that world assets have ever been exploited in this way.  If you could sign up several companies to co-fund a world for all of your games, or agree to use the assets you’re developing before starting work, then you could increase your budget and produce more impressive assets as a result.
Maybe there is a niche market for specialist asset houses, like movie prop companies, that focus solely on creating and maintaining interesting and unique worlds for licensing?  A talented bunch of artists could create worlds unlike any we’ve seen, free from the constraints of writer and game designer pressure.
There are a few small issues with this naive utopic vision.
Game companies are fiercely protective of their intellectual property, so are unlikely to license AAA content.  If the licensed content was used to create a superior game this would be doubly embarrassing.  The most likely source for game words would seem to be third parties.  The problem with this is that it is very niche.  If you develop a hi-fidelity city, like Detroit in Deus Ex Human Revolution, the cost would be in the millions, to make it cost-effective it would need to be licensed many times, or else the producer wouldn’t make any money.  How many games developers are looking for, and able to afford the licensing costs of, a futuristic cyberpunk city?  The cost of the license would be less than the cost of development, but you wouldn’t own the assets.
Unless game companies agree on a defacto standard for modelling, physics engines, game engines and sound design then there will always be different choices for each: 3DS Max or Lightwave, Source or Unreal, Havok or Euphoria?  Dependent on the engine there are going to be limitations to what types of games are more naturally inclined to each.  The problem is that the game company doesn’t get to choose what systems are used; they have to go with whatever the asset creator used.  This is great if you’re making a FPS in New York and someone already made an Unreal version of the city, but if you’re making an isometric crime simulator, it could be less than useful.
If you don’t own the world, then you can’t change it.  If your game is set in London and you want to move the location of Big Ben to be slightly closer to St Paul’s Cathedral, because it would take too long to get between the areas otherwise, well, tough, you’re stuck with what you’ve got.  There are ways around this, but depending on the design choices you’ve made in the game, an obvious cut to a different location might be jarring and take the player out of the game.
Game companies don’t generally use shared assets internally.  What I mean by this is that if a company, like Take-Two Interactive, has a Baseball Bat model for their Baseball games, developed by Visual Concepts, they don’t use that baseball bat model in GTA4, developed by Rockstar North.  I realise that Take-two is a publisher, not a game developer, but if they can’t get their in-house teams working from a shared asset pool to reduce costs, then I think its a stretch for companies in competition to work from a shared asset pool.
While digital assets don’t degrade, they don’t age very well either.  When graphics capabilities increase, the relative worth of the assets decreases as it becomes obvious the models don’t look as real as they could, and it becomes less and less desirable to use outdated content.  You can update the content, but that means updating all of it, otherwise you’re left with mismatched items that have the potential to be seen side by side.
If these could be overcome you’ve still got a few more esoteric problems to contend with.
Everything would look like Unreal Tournament or GTA4.  If you think that all games look alike now, with brown-grey space marines running around brown-grey war-torn environments, then its going to be even worse when you realise that you’ve just run down the same corridor for the millionth time in two completely separate games.  A related issue is that if the Gears of War assets were used to create another run and gun cover shooter what would be the point?  If game companies can see that certain games are selling well and that you can buy the assets of the games off the shelf, you can be sure that they’ll attempt to cash in on the craze and produce an identical game.
There are other things we could potentially lose if people have a lower-cost option, as some of the best games have been defined by their limitations.  If you take away the need to create interesting low-cost graphics, you are less likely to get games like Darwinia or Space Giraffe that had to creatively overcome the lack of budget with interesting gameplay and graphics.

So, I think we’ve established it’s an interesting idea that’s not going anywhere, anytime soon, right?

EDIT: I spoke to soon, after a little digging: Battlefield 3 shares technology with EA Sports titles

Adaptable – Gaming The Wire

Talking about adaptations has got me thinking. How would I go about adapting something for the silicon screen? Instead of choosing something that’s likely to get made, I’m plumping for one of my favourite TV shows, The Wire. The Wire, for those who haven’t seen it, is an attempt to realistically examine Baltimore from the point of view of a number of different groups within the city.  It starts as a police procedural, focusing on cops and the drug dealers they are intent on locking up, but it quickly grows to encompass the school system, the political machinations at local and state level, print media and the declining stevedore industry.  The density of The Wire is intimidating, but it makes for a compelling show if you fall for it.

So, what would I do to make this experience into a game of some kind?  The easy answer would be to craft a Grand Theft Auto clone with a Baltimore accent.  You could choose to be a gang member or cop and work your way up the hierarchy until you were kingpin or commissioner.  Throw in a handful of characters from the show, Omar, Bunk and McNulty and you’d have something that looked and sounded like The Wire.


It would be shallow compared to the original.  One of the joys of the TV show is that it doesn’t really have a single point of view; there are no stars in The Wire.  Even if you root for the cops in the first season, it is difficult to say by the end of the fifth that any groups are even altruistic never mind heroic.  There are no sides only people caught in a particular part of the system.  This layering of interest upon interest is key in giving The Wire its particular feel.  With this in mind, we shall begin our first-pass design.

‘I’ll do what I can to help y’all. But, the game’s out there, and it’s play or get played. That simple.’ – Mechanics

The first significant decision is the type of game we want to make.  A sandbox game seems the most obvious choice, with various types of mini-games available for the player to choose from.  An interelated set of variables could describe aspects of the city dependent on the players actions.  These variables would be expressed to the player in the form of crime statistics and reports, newspaper vitriol and polling; essentially a combination of nearly accurate ‘facts’ that players have to base their actions on.  Could you make The Wire into something else?  A point-and-click adventure for example?  It could work as a game, but I doubt that an adventure game has the necessary complexity and depth to be able to represent The Wire experience.  A point and click is inherently reactionary and fosters the impression that there is a single way to complete a game, whereas the experience we want to give the players is based on the idea that every action has consequence and is an interaction with the environment.

To differentiate this game from the slew of sandbox games out there, the unique feature for The Wire would be the ability to take control of any individual member of the city at any time in the game.  Every NPC would act according to a set of behavioural algorithms when not being ‘used’.  These behaviours would be modified by the actions of the player and also the other NPC’s.  In this way the city would be constantly evolving.  Instead of the player being the centre of the game, they could be any number of parts, each one weaving a distinct narrative within the city.

I’ve talked before about shifting perspectives in games, I’m not a huge fan when it destroys the flow of a game, so my initial preference was for a fixed third-person view.  This seems unrealistic considering the complexity of the game and the types of tasks people are likely to be getting involved in.  Rather than fight the issue, and create a problem based on my own personal choice the point of view should shift when players are performing different tasks.  This would add, rather than detract, from the gameplay as the differing perspectives would delineate the different tasks effectively, giving the impression that the players are doing something fundamentally different.

‘What the fuck did I do?’ – Gameplay

I like the idea that you could play this game from the point of view of as many or as few people as you like.  I think it would be neat if you could play it exactly like Omar or McNulty, as a lone wolf against the city, which would roll around merrily despite your machinations.  Equally it would be interesting if you could become any member of the city, at any time.  If, for example, you’ve been playing for a while as a cop, but a story in the paper comes up with news of a particular vote by the civic authority you could ignore it or try to influence it with one of the political characters.

It would be important to show that ‘winning’ in one area of the game will necessarily lead to ‘losing’ in another.  Most obviously this would occur when the police achieve success against the criminal fraternity, but having an effective police force costs a certain amount of money, and that money won’t available for paying teachers or creating jobs.  Over a long enough timeline you could see that the inhabitants of the city that you’ve created are unsuitable to become effective police officers as the education system has gone to hell in a hand cart.

As much as it would be nice to have a fully scripted, acted and designed plot to hold all this together, I think this would actually diminish the game.  If it has a definite story it also has a definite end, which may give the players the impression that that is the final goal of the game.  If it is open and not scripted then playing the game becomes the goal of playing the game, and it doesn’t become simply an exercise in unlocking full motion video.

‘A life, Jimmy, you know what that is? It’s the shit that happens while you’re waiting for moments that never come.’ – Character Development

Is there a need for character development or is the city the real character?  I would argue that the city is the important factor here, but the reason for it’s interest is the behaviour of those within it.  Practically though, should the player control how their avatar develops and how?  If there isn’t any progression what would be the point of using one NPC over another?  Logically you’d just go to the most useful NPC at the time, but if you can alter them you can make sure the one you’re using is the best fit for the type of game you want to play.  This would have the added benefit of creating a bond between NPC and player.

How do we deal with player death?  To make it effective, there should be no lives or save points.  Dead is dead and there ain’t no coming back.  To be clear, this won’t be a game over situation, but it will mean that  that character will be over.  Why do this?  In The Wire, there are very real consequences for characters actions and many people die, are incarcerated, get fired or move in and out of the story for various other reasons.  When they go, it means something because of the emotional investment we have in the characters.  If you spend time investing in a computer game character, with meaningful progression, then character death will be a meaningful event.  In the TV show, the main group that is regularly put in mortal peril are the drug dealers at street level, but there are times when other characters are exposed to danger on stakeouts and sting operations.  The sense of tension here should be higher as the costs of losing a police officer should be higher.  This is because they should be harder to replace and retrain and there would be other penalties for the department as a whole such as increased political pressure and another investigation to run into the death (those stats don’t go down by themselves you know).

‘Where the fuck is Wallace?’ – NPCs

Each citizen would have a number of internal characteristics – Courage, Loyalty, Altruism, Greed, Aggression, Intelligence, for example, that determine their Archetype.  An Archetype would determine the behaviour of the citizen.  Changing the aggression characteristic might result in the individual falling out of a gang archetype into a different, less violent criminal archetype, like a Burglar.  Changing archetypes might not necessarily be totally dependent on the characteristics of the individual.  A character that wants to become a cop may not be able to because there aren’t cop jobs available, either they remain what they were, whatever that was, or if they have a high enough courage they could become a vigilante.  If there are multiple archetypes the individual were to be able to fit into, they could randomly be assigned one or they could take behavioural cues from all of them.

If a particular part of town is made up of lots of greedy, aggressive folks with a disregard for authority, you can expect that they would form a relationship with each other.  Based on the individuals Intelligence and Courage they could either turn out to be criminals or just ordinary members of the public.  There would be a number of archetypes that correspond to various characteristic sets, so that NPC’s behaviour can be modelled more easily than determining behaviour on the fly.  In the example above, the sort of criminal most likely to result from the agressive, greedy, anti-authority types would probably be drug gang members, who would follow behavioural patterns laid down in their archetype.  The relationships the NPCs are in will determine the type of behaviour they exhibit.  For instance, gang members may mug people, but they wouldn’t mug members of their own gang.

Being with other people with the same characteristics as you will tend to reinforce those characteristics whereas being in an area with people who have different characteristics will diminish them.  For example, being in a police station will diminish the aggression of any visitors.

‘World is bigger than that, at least, that’s what they tell me.’ – Conclusion

I think this is enough to be going on with, for the moment.  I don’t know what is technically possible, But, after playing the dizzyingly complex Hearts of Iron III, for example, this seems positively stunted in ambition.  Any thoughts?

Does Music Belong In Tabletop RPG’s?

Disclaimer – Only useful for groups willing to experience more than just background noise.

Music is a useful and unique tool for tabletop GM’s for creating a mood during an RPG session.  All too often though it is an afterthought and merely acts as an aural backdrop to the main action.  While this is okay for some games and sessions, adding a little depth to the campaign through music can mean the difference between a merely good experience and a great one.  The best time to prepare the music of a game is during the writing of the campaign, as there are so many inter-related elements that thinking about the music you want to play will influence how you eventually run individual sessions.

Getting Started

Probably the first thing to do is set the musical theme in the same way that your campaign has an overall theme: Pick a theme song, sonata, suite, symphony or album that fits with the theme of your campaign.  Play an element of that theme at the beginning of every session so that everyone is drawn back into the campaign.  The track should act as a signal that the session is starting and help players recall what happened last week.  Giving a brief rundown of last session over the title theme also helps give the session a bit of momentum.  Don’t be afraid to change the theme over time, or at key intervals during a campaign.  My initial theme song for my current Exalted campaign was ‘Cluster One’ by Pink Floyd, as I was trying to get the frigid, empty feeling of the North.  After the reveal of the campaign ‘big bad’ behind the group’s woes, the theme has changed to Dream Theater’s ‘Misunderstood’.

In much the same way a campaign has a theme, think of appropriate pieces for each of your major characters.  Play them whenever they are in a given scene.  One way to make this work is to have a playlist with a selection of tracks and the theme snuck in the middle, once the track comes on, introduce the character as if they’ve just arrived in the scene.  You can put together a playlist that consists of the themes of group members that will create subtle associations where they aren’t obvious.

Try establishing mood through music, by using the right style/genre for the mood you wish to engender.  Don’t be afraid to use music that’s not popular if it’s more appropriate.  A scene set in a Society ball would be better served by Mozart than Metallica, no matter how much your players may protest.  If you’re trying to give a place character the most effective method at your disposal is to use traditional music associated with the people that live or work there.  For example, if you’re setting a large part of your campaign in New Orleans, you can give it instant flavour by playing some New Orleans Nightcrawlers or the Hot 8 Brass Band (And yes, I have been watching Treme a lot recently…)

Even if you don’t want the hassle of micro-managing your music choices, putting a little effort into your playlists can be really rewarding.  Try and pick music that reinforces the plot; but remember it doesn’t have to be exact.  If, for example, you’re campaign is about madness, then anything off Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album will fit in with that theme.  The reverse of this can produce interesting results; so try taking plot ideas from the lyrics of songs you intend to use.

Björk’s Army of Me contains the following lyrics:

‘You’re on your own now
We won’t save you
Your rescue squad
Is too exhausted

And if you complain once more
You’ll meet an army of me’

You could take a number of elements from that short excerpt and turn into ideas for character, plot or theme.  Meeting an Army of me, could mean that the NPC will become an antagonist of some kind, or it could literally mean that a character turns into a horde of creatures, or less literally that they command a horde of some kind.  The part of the song about the rescue squad being exhausted could allude to a support network of the players being unavailable at a critical time.  The plot or thematic points don’t have to be as specific as the examples above for them to be effective.

Advanced Techniques

Foreshadowing involves taking a piece of music that has some element that you want to introduce later on, but is not strictly speaking relevant at the moment its played.  The musical theme can create a subtle link between characters and their associations, so you don’t have to labour the point through exposition.  A good example of this is used in Star Wars: A New Hope.  Luke is standing on Tattooine watching the twin suns set while the Jedi Knight Theme is played in the background.  So far we’ve not met a Jedi Knight, so there is no reason to play the theme, but it represents the character’s ambition and foreshadows his eventual fate.

Diegesis is a difficult word for an interesting concept.  Simply put in a diegesis relates to  something that is present in the world, rather than something external that is adding to it unnaturally.  Music being played on an NPC’s car radio as they drive past is diegetic.  Non-diegetic music is what we might traditionally call the soundtrack.  All of James Horner’s music in Alien, for example, is non-diegetic: the characters in the film can’t hear it and its main purpose is to act as a signifier to the audience.  Non-diegetic music tells, rather than shows.  Why is this important?  It’s much more powerful to show that a character likes a certain piece of music rather than just using it as a signifier.  If the NPC is listening to music on his radio, it shows us something about his likes and his character.  If it is merely playing in the background, it could be that the music is representing the area, the NPC, the mood of the players or something else entirely.

One of the greatest inventions of modern music is the remix.  It allows GM’s to use the same piece in a variety of different situations.  There is a cottage industry in deconstructing Nine Inch Nails tracks, so that’s a good place to start but my personal favourites are remixes of video game tracks found at OCRemix.  Covers of songs are also great for getting something different from a piece of music.  Jimi Hendrix’s cover of All Along The Watchtower has a completely different feel to the Bob Dylan original, but they are obviously linked (You can also use the versions from the new Battlestar Galactica for added sauce).  Using the associations within the music can lead to associations in the game.

Remember, just as effective as good music, a well-placed silence can add tremendously to the atmosphere of a session.

When you start a session, you need at least an mp3/CD player or computer and a connected set of speakers.  It’s best if you can determine the music before hand, as shuffling through a disorganised CD collection during a session is hard work and can detract from the game if it takes a long time.  If you can control the music from the GM’s chair, so much the better.  My set up at the moment relies on an Ubuntu Netbook wirelessly running Spotify plugged into stereo speakers either side of my GM’s screen.  This allows me to use all the music available on Spotify and my own collection of mp3’s and sound effects for those times when a particular song isn’t available.

The trick with all of this is to do it often enough that players start to notice and look for other associations but not so much that players are busy deconstructing every song you play for meaning and advice.  You don’t want every song to be ultra-relevant, all of the time or else it becomes a game of spot the plot hook/character trait.  Ideally, you’d like players to occasionally sit up and take notice of the music because it’s created tension and feeling, with an added bonus of developing some element of the campaign.  I do it because I find it fun to hide things in plain sight.

Adaptable – Why Video Game Adaptations Fail

I love adaptations, let me say that straight away. Even the bad ones, for me, reveal something about the original work that I may have missed or at the very least you see big, shiny robots fight other big, shiny robots. Despite my love, there have been no video game to film adaptations that could be described as great. Why do other adaptations work? Comics have been particularly fertile ground recently, but books, plays and even poems have been turned into successful and interesting films. Why not video games? Games themselves are more cinematic than ever so you’d think its easy to make a good movie based on a video game, right?

The Problem of Interpretation

The Joel Schumacher Batman films were not true sequels to the Tim Burton Batman Films or adaptations of the contemporary comics, they were trying to emulate the anarchic, over-the-top pantomime of the 60’s television show.1 Their failure to meet the canon established by Burton or Miller and the increasingly grim and gritty comic writers that followed in their wake, was part of the reason the first film was not critically well received and why they were ignored when Batman was re-booted to great success in 2005.

Once you release a movie, comic, book or any other work, you don’t get to make a statement explaining why you made the choices you made or to justify the tone and content of your work. Or if you do, its something that the watcher needs to search for or actively pursue; if you’re lucky a viewer might read your blog or listen to the DVD commentary, but this is normally too little or too late to change the initial feeling that has embedded itself in the viewer. This is, of course, true for every type of movie, comic, etc, but is especially damaging for adaptations as they are usually emotive subjects that have preconceived notions already attached.

Fans of Lord of the Rings range from those that have read the books to those that have read all the books, written fanfiction and attend conventions honouring Tom Bombadil. Each person will have a different notion of what’s important in the work, how people look, what they sound like and how they feel about certain passages. Changing those passages, even if the changes make sense to you, will make people angry and lead to them disliking the entire adaptation because they can’t get over that one bad scene. My brother hates the moment in The Return of the King when Sam abandons Frodo, because it doesn’t happen in the book, and no amount of hand-waving about the power of the ring is going to persuade him that that moment is true because his Sam didn’t abandon Frodo.

You could avoid the problem by removing as much of the story element as possible and building a film around a generic premise. Stripped down to the bare essentials the Super Mario Bros game is about two plumber brothers who rescue a Princess from King Koopa. The film, despite its flaws, remains true to this. But, because no-one playing the games had ever experienced what occured in the film the gamers cried foul and the film failed spectacularly to reach their core audience. After the initial flurry of excitement for a film adaptation had died down it died a quiet death at the box office.

The Problem of Multiplicity

If you think its difficult to adapt a single story into a coherent movie imagine the problems inherent in adapting an experience that also allows for each playthrough to be a different experience. Games have been dabbling with multiple endings for a while now, but this is only a symptom of a greater freedom that gaming allows.

Take Baldur’s Gate 2. You create a character who you call Naroth, he’s an elf ranger who also happens to be a child of Bhaal, the god of murder. He interacts with a huge number of NPC’s, some of whom join his party, become friends and even lovers, and a story is crafted from the dialogue and action choices the player makes. At some point he defeats Irenicus, excellently portrayed by David Warner, and the game ends. At the same time, someone else plays the same game, except she creates a human mage called Melody, who happens to be a child of Bhaal, the god of murder. She meets some of the same NPC’s and a different set join her for the adventure, and a story is crafted from the dialogue and action choices the player makes. Eventually she defeats Irenicus and the game ends. Both have played the same game, but neither would agree on the story, except in broad terms. Other players would certainly have different views so that there is no way that you could agree on a canon version of events. Even if you did dictate what was canon, you could hardly enforce it.2

While this is a bigger problem for role-playing games in particular it is still an issue for any game which has diverging gameplay. Take any beat-em-up as an example, players choose different characters dependent on their own pecadillos and each offers a different story. This is probably why Tekken never makes sense to me, as I’m a Hwoarang fan. It doesn’t matter when you’re playing a game, but usually a film crystallises all of the possible diverging narratives into a single story. Am I suggesting that Rashomon would be a good model for the next Tekken Film? It would certainly be interesting to watch and it worked for Jet Li’s martial arts epic Hero.

The Problem of Focus

Even given these two problems, surely a movie adaptation of Bioshock would be great? It has a strong story, it’s heavily scripted and you’ve got a fully realised world that has a strong visual identity to work with. In essence there is very little you have to make up to bring Rapture to the screen. I still think there is an issue which will cause the Bioshock film to disappoint, even if it looks and feels like the game.

The movie adaptation of Watchmen uses the comic as a panel for shot reference and is true to the source material in almost every respect, with the obvious exception of the ending. It’s been hailed as the most successful of the adaptations of Alan Moore’s work to the big screen because of this. However, it is still inferior to the original. I don’t say this because I think that comics are a better form of art than movies, there are plenty of comic book adaptations of films that prove that point for me, but there are certain things that a comic book can do that films cannot. Issue 5 ‘Fearful Symmetry’ is constructed in such a way that the layout and colouring of each page is mirrored, the first page with the last page, second with second to last and so on, culminating in a mirrored splash page at the centre of the issue. Even if the film wished to emulate this in the film, which they don’t attempt, it wouldn’t work as you can’t compare frames of film while sitting in the cinema, it has a relentless pace of 24 frames per second that doesn’t allow for reflection. The film tries to be faithful to the subject matter but because it doesn’t have the same capabilities of the comics medium it ends up being a good-looking copy of the action of the comic without much of the depth of the original.

Bioshock is interesting because it gives you the illusion of control. The moment that Andrew Ryan reveals that you are not in control could not be re-created in a movie. it is true that it could be re-created in a practical sense, but the viewer of the movie would not have the same sensation as the player of the game, how could he? In the game you are the protagonist, you’ve just been told that everything that you have done has been at the behest of a criminally insane monster, you are responsible for the deaths of potentially hundreds of people in a plane crash and you are nothing more than a tool. In a film the protagonist will be told that everything he has done has been at the behest of a criminally insane monster, he is responsible for the deaths of potentially hundreds of people in a plane crash and that he is nothing more than a tool. In the game you are the centre of attention, in the film you are a passive observer. Depending on the quality of the actor, script and direction it is possible that this scene will be marrow-chillingly effective, but it can’t possibly recreate the same emotional resonance.

The Only Neat Thing To Do

One option, and what Irrational Games is doing with Bioshock Infinite, is ignore the story from the first game completely. It is not possible to recreate the story and resonance of a game in a satisfying way for the screen. What you can do is take the themes, setting and concepts and use as much or as little as you like to make a great story. Going back to Batman, the core ideas that Christopher Nolan took from the Batman mythos were few and stripped down to the bare essentials: there is a extremely rich man with revenge issues who dresses up as a bat and fights crime. Names are kept, but the characters like Alfred or The Joker are changed enough to make the story work or make the film better. What they’ve done is ignore the story elements almost completely and are concentrating on the strongest elements of character, those which a large majority of people ascribe to Batman, and little else. No-one would’ve cared if Bane was a bumbling idiot or a super-genius in Batman & Robin if the movie was good.

Some video game adaptations have already attempted to sidestep the ‘game’ story. The Resident Evil series of films takes parts of the story from the games and has created an alternate universe where similar things happen but everything revolves around Milla Jovovich’s character, Alice. Now, by no stretch of the imagination are these films great, but they are the best of the current crop of game adaptations.3 Even in this case though, Alice is a player substitute, but because the games don’t have an Alice character, its less noticeable that she is having the fun that players normally have when running around Raccoon City shooting zombies.

The danger is, the more you remove, the more the first problem raises it’s head. As a film-maker, you have to make a choice. Do you want the film to be faithful or be good? I would argue that a game adaptation can’t be both. I would love to be proved wrong.

1 Whether they succeeded in that endeavour is debatable.
2 Which means the failure of the D&D movie is even harder to bear. The most interesting things about D&D are the various campaign settings and to make up a new, inconsistent, wafer-thin and frankly boring version of Forgotten Realms in the week it seemed the scriptwriters had to write the film when you already have a Forgotten Realms type setting called Forgotten Realms with twenty years of development, backstory, history and character on the shelf is head-scratchingly dumb.
3 The Resident Evil games are essentially adaptations of zombie movies so perhaps it’s easier to do it in reverse.


Inevitably at the end of the year, a slew of gaming articles proclaim that a console has been the greatest of the year. According to Metacritic, the PS3 had the best games this year, with an average metacritic rating of 70.4%. The XBox360 could only manage a paltry 66.7%, so if you bought the entire reviewed PS3 and Xbox360 catalogue of 2008 you’d have exactly 3.7% more fun with the PS3 titles.

That does mean you’d have bought and played to completion 363 games, which is beyond the means of most people, so the comparison is practically meaningless. Looking deeper into the mountain of data from Metacritic, it is possible to see some interesting titbits. The results might surprise you.

The simplest comparison to make would be to look at the top games of each system, simply by looking at the metacritic data, and then find the average score for those games. I’ve not filtered these results at all, and this should be easily replicable by taking the top 20 scores from each system and getting mean averages from the top 10 and top 20 games respectively.

Top Games by System

The Wii lags behind by a few percentage points and the PS3 and XBox360 are neck and neck. The results indicate that the PS3 edges the XBox360 in the top 10 comparisons but that is reversed in the top 20. Two points need to be made here. Firstly, the difference is so small, 0.1% and 0.4% that it’s really not enough to be able to make a compelling case for dominance. Secondly, the lists are populated by the same names, in the Top 20 PS3 and XBox360 games; there are 11 multiplatform titles, such as GRID, Fallout 3 and Soulcalibur 4.

So, do we need to look at exclusives? Certainly that’s the trend, as more and more sites try to differentiate between the systems. There is a logic to this, but the methodology seems to be quite sloppy, in that sites will choose which titles are classed as exclusive and which are included in the analysis.

The following graphs are based on the scores of the top exclusive titles for each system. The only qualifier for this list is if they are platform exclusive, be they full-price or download titles. By my reckoning a good game is a good game and it matters little if one costs less than the other.

Top Exclusive Games by System

The difference is even less pronounced in this case. The Wii is slightly less impressive in the Top 10, but when we extend the list to 20, there is only a minor difference between the three consoles. This graph seems counter intuitive, as the PS3 had the two highest scoring exclusives of the year in LittleBigPlanet (95) and MGS4 (94), but after this there next highest score was Resistance 2 (87). Compare this with the Xbox360 which had three 90+ games, Gears of War 2, Braid and Geometry Wars 2 and three games just under, Fable 2, Portal: Still Alive and Rez HD. Suffice to say, if you bought any of the systems, if you were hungry for exclusive content, you would have been well served by all three.

As an aside, if you included PC games in this comparison it would be the best of all the systems, with a top 10 score of 87.3% and a top 20 score of 85.4%. It is also favourably placed in the comparison of top games, so the PC gaming industry is dead; long live the PC gaming industry!

It seems the exclusive angle is a dead end. A direct comparison between the systems should do the trick, surely? It was difficult to find a list of games that were released on all three systems that didn’t extend way down into the depths of mediocrity, so I’ve split this section in two. First of all, the by now familiar tri-system breakdown.

Top Cross-Platform Games by System

This list is made up of Cross-Platform titles such as Guitar Hero World Tour, Call of Duty: World at War and Pro Evolution Soccer. Scores range from pretty good, Guitar Hero scored about 85, to pretty average, The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon, with about 60.

Again there is little difference between the three systems. You could argue that the XBox360 has an advantage overall, but it is such a minor advantage, 1.0% and 1.6%, that you could hardly call it convincing. However, there are extreme differences between individual games. Pro Evolution Soccer 08 is clearly better on the Wii, with a 7% advantage over the next best version. Conversely, it has the worst version of Tomb Raider: Underworld, with a measly score of 68 compared to 76 for the PS3/XBox360 versions. Indeed the biggest variations are between the Wii versions and everything else. If there is any conclusion from this data it is that the Wii is clearly better at certain games than it’s more graphically muscular cousins, almost certainly because the play experience has been tailored to suit the Wii’s unique control mechanisms. Where this hasn’t been done, or has been done badly, the console suffers. Overall, if you were to buy one console and stick with it, you wouldn’t see an overall advantage or disadvantage if you bought a range of cross-platform games.

So, is there a difference between the PS3 and XBox360? They are clearly similar systems, utilising roughly analogous control methods with minor graphical differences. Using a slightly different list of games, because there are more games that are on just PS3 and XBox360 than all three consoles, we see the following:

Top PS3/XBox360 Titles by System

To appreciate these results, the full list of games and scores is below:

Far from sorting the wheat from the chaff, this is a stunning example of how close the two systems are. Of the twenty scores, 10 are exactly the same, five are one point away, four are two points different and one, the largest difference, is a meagre three points. The average difference is only 0.3% in the top 10 and 0.1% in the top 20.

This article shows that the differences between the consoles are smaller than you might expect. Even given the differences between the Wii’s scores for some games, overall the consoles are remarkably similar in their scores for exclusives and cross-platform titles. To proclaim that any platform is better than another based on the quality of their games is erroneous. Clearly, all platforms have had a number of very good quality games, notably Grand Theft Auto 4, LittleBigPlanet, Gears of War 2 and Super Smash Bros Brawl. You might consider the following:

The Wii looks to be the most volatile console; it’s scores for cross-platform games tend to be quite different to the average score. This doesn’t mean that it’s any worse, as the average shows, it’s just has different strengths. If a game has been optimised for the unique control system, the Wii tends to do well. Equally, if the game is a straight port, because of the graphical capabilities of the Wii, it will compare unfavourably with the other two consoles.

The differences between the PS3 and XBox360 are even less pronounced. Their scores for Exclusives and Cross-Platform titles are virtually identical. Looking at the individual scores of the cross-platform titles that were released for the systems we see that they are also remarkably close. The claim that any of the systems are better than the other seems to be mistaken at best and malicious at worst.

Why use Metacritic?

Metacritic aggregates data, which means that it takes a large number of reviews from the Internet and compresses them into a very simple score out of 100. This means that you can be fairly certain that the scores you’re getting represent a large cross section of the opinion for each game. This compares to a single site comparison, which uses only data from it’s own website. Any bias towards a system found in an individual site is reduced by Metacritic due to the sheer number of reviews it looks at.

While Metacritic isn’t perfect, the way I’m using the data means that any errors that have crept into the scoring system will affect all systems and all results equally.


‘I Chose Rapture!’

Bioshock descends into darkness from the very beginning, both literally and figuratively; the crash that deposits you in the middle of the ocean is just the start of the visceral horrors that you face in the deep.

The world of Rapture is at once familiar and bizarre. A mixture of 30’s and 40’s propaganda litters the bloody streets of the claustrophobic tubes and bathyspheres that connect the gardens, hospitals and arcades, but it’s not Capitalism or Communism that rules in Rapture, it’s Ryanism.

Andrew Ryan is a grotesque figure that is revealed throughout the course of the game to be a despotic, visionary recluse. While he built Rapture, and plays a large part in the game, he is obviously not in total control, as there are a number of fiefdoms within the city. The killing of Frank Fontaine, Ryan’s nemesis and head of the criminal underclass, two years ago, that should have cemented his power, led to a full-blown civil war.

Initially your only contact is with Atlas, the leader of the resistance that has risen up against Ryan over the last two years. Atlas’s family has been trapped in a different part of the underwater city and he asks you for help in reuniting him with them. Very quickly you realise that Rapture has gone badly wrong.

Genetically modified humans, called splicers are everywhere. While nominally under the control of Ryan, these crazies have been driven mad by their lust for ADAM, the source of Plasmid power, and have managed to kill most of the normal inhabitants of Rapture. They prey on the Little Sisters, the only beings capable of harvesting ADAM from the dead. Luckily for the Little Sisters, they are protected by Big Daddys, the deadly, diving suit wearing behemoths that have become the game’s iconic figures.

The central choice in the game of Bioshock is how you choose to deal with Little Sisters. If you rescue them you can gain a small amount of ADAM, if you kill them you can take it all. Either way you have to kill the powerful Big Daddys who act as mindless guardians, unaware of your intentions. Perhaps most horrifying, if you do attempt to kill the Big Daddys, the Little Sisters will goad and shout at her guardian to kill you. And they usually do.

Communication in Rapture is done in a number of different ways, but most of the time you’ll be picking up transmissions from your radio and finding audio diaries that are scattered around the city. It is very rare that you hear someone that isn’t using a mechanical device to talk to you, with the exception of Splicers and Little Sisters. This makes every interaction seem either very cold and distant or violently charged. When you actually meet a person face to face the moments are so much more powerful, mostly due to the change in timbre, the heightened reality and the addition of visual cues.

The game does have flaws, although they are really quite minor. It is easy. You will die a lot, but because you are resurrected in nearby Vita-Chambers, you can continue without losing your progress within the game and without resorting to an out of date save. I actually quite like this, as it doesn’t take you out of Rapture. The more time you spend living in the game world, not navigating save game files, the better, as you aren’t constantly shifting from real- to game-world and back. Bioshock is immersive and to be reminded that you are playing a game would destroy some of its power.

Mechanically, Bioshock is not amazing and adds nothing to the FPS genre in terms of technical innovation. Plasmids, additional psychic powers you can develop, are nice but not amazing, the weapons are fairly standard and level design can be sometimes confusing. There is also no multiplayer aspect. It is unfair to concentrate on these and call the game average or even flawed, as the game is not about technical brilliance, unlike, say, Halo 3; its all about great storytelling. It’s like saying that Great Expectations is a terrible book because it doesn’t have a chapter on Dinosaurs or the option to read it from the perspective of Herbert Pocket.

The triumph of Bioshock is that it plays with traditional conceits of computer games in general, toying with the ideas of fate and free will. Atlas asks ‘would you kindly’ do such and such a task, but there is no option within the game not to do it. Instead of ignoring the weaknesses of computer games and the usual linear gameplay options or meaningless dialogue box choices, Bioshock confronts this issue and convincingly deals with it. The stand out scene is the first meeting you have with Andrew Ryan, as it not only shows you why you’ve been doing what you’ve done, it also gives you a truly compelling reason to continue. Rather than fall into the trap of loading the first chapters with exposition and cut-scenes to entice the player in, 2K Games have worked on the whole game and polished Bioshock until it shines with a bloody, crimson sheen.

Other considerations

  • The achievements are fun and range from ridiculously easy (Toaster in The Tub) to insanely difficult (Historian or Tonic Collector)
  • Great soundtrack – A combination of in-game snippets of 40’s/50’s records and by turns beautiful and disturbing orchestration
  • Hacking, Tonics, Plasmids, and Research all extend the life of the game