Dishonored (PC)

Dishonored (PC) screenshot
Dishonored (PC). There’s a lot of waiting in shadows. But it’s active waiting, if that makes sense…

I’m sure we will achieve photo-realism one day, but it’s a race I’m not very interested in. (The most interesting bit is whether we can figure out a way around the insane amount of manual detail work required.) It’s rare to be impressed by graphics anymore – even great graphics come as expected these days. When you start to consider games’ relationship to film, things become worrisome. Our biggest budgets are thrown into an effort to emulate film as best as we can, when we are still far from photo-real. Following this curve, returns are diminishing every year as we get closer to photo-real and still merely attempt to do what film has been doing since the advent of color film. Ever since we could capture moving pictures of what’s in front of the camera, movie creators have been thinking about how to stand out from everybody else capturing what’s in front of a camera. For a while it was enough to think of new things to put in front of the camera, and new faces, and scandals and spectacle. But soon they started to think if they could make the visuals more interesting. And while they got a little side-tracked with the advent of high definition and the return of 3D, movies are still very much about establishing their own visual language, quite separate from the reality that’s there as a benefit of the medium. (Big budget movies have the same issue as big budget games, though – playing it too safe to create anything worth any consideration beyond the moment. Orange and teal, set-formula trailers and posters and a very limited cast of accepted faces – none of it is a benefit.)

Dishonored is a relatively big budget first-person game that takes a lot of risks, but the biggest chance it takes is arguably its art. Stepping into it, you’re not looking at an emulation of a photograph. You’ve stepped into a piece of concept art, exactly the expensive, high-end stuff you see covering the printed art books of big budget games. Except for once, that glorious vision built on the merits and goals of visuals alone has not been diluted by a later, conflicting desire to emulate life. Looking at a wall in Dishonored, you’re not looking at a photograph of a wall, palette-shifted to the game’s color tone, you’re looking at a painting of a wall. The same goes with faces and water and skies and wherever you care to look. Every image you frame in-game feels like it was built as a fixed camera point showcasing a beautiful, standout location in the game – except they’re all that good. The level of art direction in this game is so phenomenal, it makes you stop in awe in every corner.

Even though the team has surely known they’ve created something that stands out and is beautiful and effective on every level, they must have had some uncertainty about how it’s going to be received. Because it sure doesn’t look like Call Of Duty or any movie.

The art is not the only risk here. The mental barrier to entry is quite high as the game’s marketing doesn’t really explain what’s going on. There’s an intimidating masked man with a knife, and the title. Some sort of alternative to Assassin’s Creed, then? And indeed it is. Dishonored is a game about being a man capable of assassination, but given the freedom to go about it however he chooses to, including the very real option of not actually killing anyone. Where with most games this comes down to a binary choice, Dishonored builds that core conflict into all of its systems. You’re not encouraged to go either way. Killing tends to be somewhat easier and not killing isn’t really rewarded in any concrete way. There exists a lot of gray between the extremes of not killing anyone and being a murderous bastard, feared by all. Your supposedly more merciful choices carry their own consequences – an early example left me wondering if it wouldn’t have been the more humane, kinder option to just kill them, considering the fate awaiting the men I spared. I was left with clean hands, but not a clean conscience. In terms of storytelling via the player’s own actions, this is unparalleled stuff.

Dishonored (PC) screenshot
If you decide to play it more straightforward or just fail to sneak through, the action works really well, too. Another thing they use effectively is never taking you out of the first person perspective.

Not that the actual gameplay falls short in any way. You’re given a lot of tools and avenues to approach and explore. Where I was left frustrated by the neatly boxed systems of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, here they’re all bouncing happily off each other, creating a believable illusion of a living world. It feels like your choices matter. You own your solution to any situation in the game – it’s not picking one of three choices the game designers have offered you.

It also feels fresh. What you’re doing is a high-speed version of Thief, essentially, skulking in shadows and waiting for your moment to strike unseen, except you’re now given the tools to move very quickly from shadow to shadow and scale tall walls. Nobody has done that Thief experience in a long time and it feels as new as it once did. The new Thief has a lot to match if it hopes to one-up Dishonored in its own game.

A game designer colleague described Dishonored to me as a great game, an honest game. I agree in the sense that Dishonored knows it’s a game, not a story. You’re introduced to all of your tools very quickly and given enough motivation to go on your business. The game’s opening scene, up until the prison escape, is easily my favorite game opening ever. Arkane takes a bit of a gamble, risking losing you in terms of what’s commonly accepted from big budget games, but it all works out like any modern TV drama does: the audience left wondering, wanting to know more is a very powerful tool.

There is actually quite a lot of exposition, but none of it feels forced. I’m genuinely curious to learn more. The secret is that while there’s exposition, you doubt everyone’s word and always get the sense you’re not being told the whole story. Nobody tells you how you should feel. Dishonored knows to leave more out than what it lays out. All of it serves to create a world much bigger than what’s on the screen. If you tell us everything, you can be sure that most of us won’t care. It can never be as interesting as what we imagine.

This would’ve been my game of the year if I had played it last year. The confidence with which Arkane makes a whole out of gameplay, storytelling and new, exciting visuals is intimidating. This feels like the next leap forward from the original Bioshock, a similar game in many ways. I am very excited to see what Arkane does next, hoping dearly it isn’t a sequel.


Breach & Clear (iOS)

Breach &Clear (iOS) screenshot
Breach & Clear. Mmm, sweet movement lines and cover symbols and area of coverage indicators.

I played the second Rainbow Six title, Rogue Spear, more than any game before it. The game was split into two parts: first you planned your assault on a terrorist-held location in minute detail, outlining every operative’s path and angles and use of weapons and equipment on a second by second basis through the whole operation. This was a very involved process thanks to a not very user friendly interface. Then you played out the operation, controlling one of the operatives in first-person, which was the phase I always dreaded as it called for very quick reflexes and absolute confidence in the plan, even if it always went out the window at some point. But the satisfaction of a clean, successful operation was something no other game in the same vein has been able to offer ever since. SWAT 4 and the original Ghost Recon gave you some of the same kicks, even though without the tactical pre-planning. The properly tactical shooter has been dead ever since, the subsequent Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon titles going for out and out gunplay, completely losing sight of what made them great to begin with, but now the tactical shooter is making a comeback thanks to the promising Takedown.

While waiting for Takedown we have an interesting smaller game to delve into: Breach & Clear takes the tactical planning part of Rainbow Six and turns it into a full iOS title. You take control of a real-world special forces team and hit a sequence of realistic, small locations to, well, breach and clear: enter and take out all the hostiles. You’re given all the tools you would expect, save for off-site sniper support, which is a somewhat puzzling omission.

You plan the action turn by turn, each turn giving you enough time to clear roughly one room, moving your four soldiers and hitting the “go” button to see how it plays out once you’re happy with the plan. Anticipating enemy locations and getting the first shot in are paramount. When that isn’t possible, you need to come in from several angles at the same time or utilize tools like flashbangs.

This leads to the game’s one design problem – it needs a way to control time. Rainbow Six had the idea of assigning “go” orders to chosen moments. The soldiers would wait until you gave the correct code, allowing you to stack up on multiple doors to a room and going in at once. Without this you’re essentially eyeballing to try and get guys to move in a synchronous fashion. It’s just about acceptable as you can imagine that after the initial breach (which kicks off every scenario) a team would move through a target as fast as they can, relying on initiative to see them through. But as a player, it feels like I’m missing a tool.

Another issue has to do with the way the campaign is laid out. Your main motivation is amassing money to customize your gear with a large array of real-life options. There isn’t enough information on the options to really make it appealing, though, and the cumbersome user interface gets in the way.

There is also an in-app purchasing system. Based on my time with the game, it doesn’t look like it upsets the game balance, but it’s a little hard to tell because of lack of feedback and transparency in the game mechanics. There appears to be a nice selection of attributes that affect the outcome of a confrontation, but you’re never told how they add up. Is mobility more important than reaction time? What about accuracy? How does movement and cover affect things? It all looks like the kind of tactical system I would design for this kind of game, but as you’re never really told how it all hangs together, it feels vague.

My biggest gripe with the game is responsiveness. From the time it takes to load on an iPhone 4S – and I understand this is primarily a tablet game – to the fiddliness of the buttons – it’s often unclear whether I hit a button or not – I spend too much time fighting the game to get things done. The “cancel” button sees a lot of use due to not managing to hit the correct grid coordinate when planning your moves or rotating your guys. (And how exactly do you cancel grenade throws?) When you do have everything lined up as you’d like, the action leaves too much in the dark. You’re not shown when your guys engage or spot hostiles; it’s up to you to align the camera so that you can see what’s going on during your action phase.

So there’s a bit of a learning curve to gettings things done and experimenting blindly is never that much fun, but the core action works so well that I can’t help but spend time on improving my grades and boosting my soldiers’ stats. Recommended, if you already know you’re into it, but without prior exposure to this sort of game, I imagine the shortcomings get in the way of enjoying it.


Metro 2033 (PC)

Metro 2033 screenshot (PC)
I love all the analogue, in-world stuff like the maps, watches, compasses and air-pumps.

I was disappointed by the “scary” action of the FEAR titles – action wise they’re fine but despite a strong scenario they just fail to build any atmosphere to speak of. The problem is that they’re trying to imitate movie techniques and in a videogame that’s not necessarily the most effective route. The movie cliches stand out from the interactive experience and end up as canned cinema sequences where you can flail around like an idiot, with the game designers behind the scenes hoping really hard you’ll look in the right direction to see the scary bit.

If you want to see an example of atmosphere done right, Metro 2033 is your game.

I don’t much like Metro 2033 as a game. The guns feel seriously underpowered, the feel of movement and fighting is just off and everything is clunkier than I’d like. But as an experience, something you plunge into to have an intense ride in a cruel world, it shines. Without using movie techniques, it actually fills the role of a horror movie, except being interactive in a meaningful sense.

The game’s structure is interesting. Instead of being a sandbox (Far Cry) or a linear rollercoaster (FEAR), it’s a bit of both, except cut up into bite-sized vignettes. You go from scene to scene, and the game often judiciously cuts right to the next interesting bit. Games rarely do this well, and it’s a joy to follow along on the ride. The first-person perspective doesn’t mean you should be forced to take every single step and be “immersed” all the time.

Metro doesn’t have a story as much as a world. You’re cast into a world that you perhaps feel like you know – a post-apocalyptic underground complete with comic-book mutants – but that manages to surprise you in every turn. Some of it comes from its details – bullets as currency so you’re effectively firing money at the enemy, constantly running out of gasmask filters, the Russian vibe of the society – but mostly it’s the atmosphere. Being in this world is so oppressive, you’re thankful for the breaks the vignette structure offers. It’s oppressive in a way the ultra-violent fantasy of the Fallout games doesn’t ever reach. I had to stop playing Fallout 3 because I just didn’t want any more of the hopeless grey wasteland, but Metro manages to out-do that in every regard, yet still keep me coming back.

The secret is that its threats are believable and relatable. As a movie analogy, Metro is The Road – it will make anyone quiet and relate, whereas many won’t watch a splatter movie and those that do, enjoy them for the laughs. Where Fallout shocks you with a super-mutant’s super-bag dripping with body parts and gore and eyeballs sailing through clouds of blood in (super) slow motion, Metro has you freezing and choking on polluted air, your breathing heavy and pained in the echoing gasmask you’re wearing most of the time, its cracked glass and scratches a plexiglass you’re thankful is separating you from your immediate surroundings. You’re checking your analogue wristwatch to see how much time you have left before you need to replace your mask’s filters. You’re turning over the bodies of scavengers that you haven’t killed, but who have rather frozen or starved to death on the surface. There is no music to get your blood pumping. It makes you quiet.

And then, when you’re safe, Metro isn’t afraid to make humanity worth something clinging to. When you’re running with the stupidly serious, cookie-cutter soldiers of FEAR, or hanging out with the circus crowd of Fallout, being a clone amidst men doesn’t mean anything. There is nothing to relate to. Metro’s world is one of people: prejudices, injustice, children and parents, tea and vodka and getting by, sharing stories and being afraid of losing it all.

From contrast arises meaning.


Vanquish (PS3)

Vanquish (PS3) cover art
Vanquish. This sliding is what you do in the game pretty much all the time, even if the the actual in-game position is more outrageous.

I thought Vanquish was the most impressive game at E3 2010, and promptly forgot about it for the following years. I only got into it thanks to it being featured as a free title on PlayStation Plus. Turns out my initial impressions were right, and also that they are somewhat worrying in today’s videogame market.

Vanquish really is an impressive game. On purely the level of spectacle, the audiovisual show on offer is top shelf. This easily stands up to something like Halo and Gears Of War as action entertainment. Indeed, as an action title, it is in very rare company as an impeccably designed skill game.

Vanquish is like I imagined the videogames of the future would be, as a child pounding away obsessively at his Commodore 128D. If you take a game like Turrican (1990) and just keep upping the graphical fidelity and control scheme, what you end up with is Vanquish. It is a demanding, relentless game that presents itself as a challenge. You are required to learn how it plays and use all the tricks it gives you to overcome what it throws at you. As another wave of killer robots advances on you, you can almost hear the game’s director, the esteemed Shinji Mikami asking “are you having fun yet?”.

Unlike something like Gears, the enemies don’t much change, but the pacing keeps things refreshing. Nothing gets in the way of playing the game, which is really welcome in today’s overly hand-holding gaming space. From the opening camera pan to the initial menu selections, Vanquish throws you into the deep end and asks you to swim. Pauses in the fighting are not drawn-out affairs – Marcus Fenix walking slowly with your hand to your ear, I’m looking at you – but quick breaks to merely tell you that you’ve survived the challenge and are going to enter the next one in a few seconds. The second the action ends, the hero lights up and asks “where do I go next?”. There is no pretension of character drama and only the lightest of facades that suffices for motivation. It is the EVIL WALRUS STOLE YOUR FRIENDS of the modern age. RUSSIAN ROBOTS ON RAMPAGE, go make a mess.

The setting and cast are glorious. You are a DARPA prototype test man attacking a Russian robot force that’s taken over a colony cylinder in Earth space. As settings go, it is a triumph: it’s believable, huge yet easy to understand and ready to be blown to bits. Its off-white hues delineate everything in easy to process shapes and channels. As a game space, it shines. You accept ever more ridiculous robot bosses rising from its depths at face value. It is the tightly edited 1980s action movie in a world of bloated blockbusters more concerned with being “entertainment” and “value” than being out and out spectacular games. You don’t need anything but the lone hero against an army of killer robots. Just keep upping the tempo and the speed and things will sort themselves.

Gameplay is of the “take a formula that works and tweak one single thing” school of design. You’re basically playing a cover shooter in the vein of Gears Of War, but instead of the impossible to direct, protein-powered charge-through-anything-in-your-way style “roadie run” to move between cover, you get… entirely reckless ankle rockets.

Press L2 to boost and the hero drops on his knees, leans back and rockets forward. It’s reminiscent of water slides and snowboarding and skating, except at stupid speeds. The boosting is so much fun you do it all the time, even if only to move a couple of meters. This joy of movement is further evoked by your dodge move which is a flamboyant somersault. When you’re out of rocket juice, what you do is somersault all over the place, more often than not under heavy rocket fire. It’s glorious, and what happens is you never just walk or run around. Getting around becomes the lizard-brain satisfying activity, not shooting. You laugh at outmaneuvering your foes at rocket speed and (rocket) punching them in the face instead of lining up shots.

If I were to criticize something, the weapons are not very interesting or satisfying. There’s some joy in figuring out how they work, but nothing really compares to rocket punching guys up into the air.

Vanquish is an excellent game and we should cherish it. I can’t help but think that games like it are becoming more elusive by the year.


Mechanics as atmosphere

Dream Pod 9 logo
Dream Pod 9. This game has amazing art… which is nigh-impossible to find online due to its age. It really is worth the hassle to hunt down the books to dive into it.

(Yet another roleplaying post. I have been running a lot of RPGs this year, what can I say… This is also a super short post as I realized it’s coming up on midnight on a Friday and I’m still at the office and I need a break from work.)

This is also yet another RPG mechanics post – there appears to be a lot to say about the relationship of mechanics with storytelling, even when lots of folks are saying their polarities reject each other.

We played a game of Heavy Gear last weekend. It’s my favorite roleplaying world and game, even if we haven’t played a ton of it. Easily worth tracking down even though it’s been out of print for years now.

I had a problem with nailing down the atmosphere of the game for the group. Heavy Gear is science fiction and it’s war themed, but it’s still anime inspired with over the top character archetypes, and all these watchwords and somewhat conflicting directions had my players’ heads spinning. I couldn’t think of a way to put it succinctly and cleanly – my long history with the game got in the way and I couldn’t see it from a newcomer’s perspective. (Entirely my failure, I realise it.)

This was all still bothering me when we got into the finale of the session. The players were portraying military intelligence operatives chasing two suspects in a desert. We finally brought the titular giant robots, Heavy Gears, on the scene and the players got into the whole power-tripping side of it, laying down autocannon fire at genetically-engineered supersoldiers and dominating the battlefield.

Then the first hostile shot of the game was fired, a hover APC gliding from cover and opening fire with a scatter laser cannon. Dice rolled and on an average result, on first contact, the players’ biggest gun, a Warrior Heavy Gear, blew into a fireball in the desert night, seriously wounding the player character inside. The mood at the table immediately shifted.

“Oh it’s that kind of game.”

“Now I get what you mean with the not-glorified warfare, albeit high action.”

With any other but the Silhouette system, this would’ve played out another way, and the players would still be guessing about the game’s direction.

Mechanics set the mood after human interaction and imagination had failed.

Games roleplaying tabletop games

RPG mechanics on table and screen

Running my current D&D campaign, I’ve been thinking about mechanics a lot. I want to make the game mechanically interesting: it should be a good game, any other qualities notwithstanding. As the play has become more regimented, I don’t feel that we’ve lost any of the freeform creative air of a tabletop RPG, paradoxic as that may sound. But that leads to another question: could a digital game ever recreate both the situations and their solutions that come up in playing with humans, in a human designed and run game?

There are seven levels of mechanical interaction in-game as far as I can tell: personal/emotional, tactical, resource, extended tactical, abstract, micro and arbitrary systems.


The “personal/emotional” level is unsurprisingly what human-run roleplaying games do the best. As you’re interacting with other people and adapting to their play on the fly, even somewhat lacking roleplaying and acting is in practice pretty good. You get insights and experiences in-character that would be very hard to achieve in a digital fashion. But this only happens because the digital games tend to make one big mistake.

In digital games “emotional” tends to mean literal and canned. Someone has written a story you’re supposed to care about, happening to characters they’ve written. For emotion to happen in an interactive experience, that should all be flipped around: characters you’ve envisioned, with their personal motivations, are doing interesting things. This is not the same as having a blank canvas of a character (which, naturally, nobody cares about), but rather giving the player enough room to project their own ideas into. As a crude example, a player being forced to kill someone in-game is only marginally better (in terms of impact) than having that happen in a non-interactive cutscene. That could be elevated very simply by giving the player actual choice.

While counter-intuitive, this level of interaction is often elevated by having fewer words and visible emotions. When you’re free to imagine things, they magically become better, as long as you don’t contradict it elsewhere. For good examples, see Fable II, The Sims and FTL. You can build emotion out of very simple, visible, free to interpret interaction. For extra points, tie it all into game mechanics.


“Micro” means the stuff that happens between the lines of the written rules. Because the Otyugh is so big and the roof so low, it crushes the roof as it walks underneath it, eating it, denying that top floor to everybody and turning the area around it into difficult terrain due to the rubble. Magic missiles can be used to bring down sections of the roof as well as targeting enemies. This can be reached, to a point, by simulating a hell of a lot more than we’ve used to. Dwarf Fortress does a good job of this. A computer would be in theory good in following up any sort of simulation, but in practice a human editor is vastly superior, as a human is good in judging intent and drama.

Do we need to concern ourselves with the finest detail of physics in this particular chase? Most often the answer is “no”. It’s just that sometimes it becomes crucial to the quality of the game. My belief is that adding as many often-seen, relevant micro-level simulations as possible would add to the likelihood of neat, memorable, emergent things happening during play. You could do a lot just with accurate physics and material properties. It wouldn’t be the same thing, as the computer would be bad at making value calls, but it could very well be good enough. Thus, more physics simulation would be a good step in the right direction.

Arbitrary systems

“Arbitrary systems” means rules that exist to make sense of the game world or to add interesting interaction on top of the basic framework of the game. Think locked doors and lockpick skills and single-use automatic lockpicks, as you might see in a Deus Ex game.

As a tabletop example, Dungeons & Dragons, fourth edition, has an oft-derided mechanic that I like a lot: the skill challenges. The basic idea is that the players are presented with an objective and asked to reach it using a combination of their skills, with some limits based on what’s applicable. What makes this interesting is that everybody in the party must take part, even though they often do not have any obviously suitable skills to contribute. This leads to situations where, for example, the fighter is helping out by carrying people around the library on her shoulders, or the druid figures out where the bad guys are hiding from the way insects are behaving. It’s really all up to the players’ imagination – as a game master I typically have no idea how they might reach their objectives, yet they always do.

This is not quite the same as just imagining the world as a sandbox with a “do anything” motto. The game is doing its best to present interesting objectives and giving you enough tools to make it happen. The Deus Ex games are trying to do this, but they stumble in their artificiality. The systems should mix more. We need systems that welcome messing about, producing surprising offspring. The way to make arbitrary systems work is to encourage them breeding.


“Tactical” is easy – that’s the basic combat scenarios you’re likely to find in most old-school RPGs and all digital RPGs. Computers are very good in this stuff, eliminating book keeping and providing AI opposition for solo players, and the only worthwhile tabletop advantages are evident in the other categories I outlined above – micro and arbitrary systems. XCOM is a lot of fun, and probably more fun digitally than it would be on tabletop.

Extended tactical

However, the “extended tactical” level is where the tabletop wins out every time. If you would run the XCOM scenarios on tabletop, they would become dull very soon. There’s not enough variety. In our bi-weekly D&D games we fight a lot of tactical battles, but I spend a lot of time making sure there’s some new element in play every single time. It could be an enemy with a unique ability or a feature of the environment the players haven’t met before. There could be timed events. Any of these elements would be easy enough to replicate in a digital game, but the problem is that you need so many of them. I want something new for every single fight.

If you were to analyze these unique elements, you’d find that they do follow patterns. Most of them are variants of the same basic components, just put together or simply presented in new ways. There’s timed events, traps, NPCs that need protection, the elements imposing a negative quality on everyone, parts of the environment being hazardous, moving environments, multiple waves of enemies, template enemy formations, and so forth. If you were to design your attributes carefully enough, there is no reason why you couldn’t put together compelling, interesting and even unique combat scenarios for every single fight. The automatic response in videogames is either “the design will become messy” or “it’s too expensive”, but anybody saying those things needs to play more tabletop games.


“Abstract” mechanics sit right at home in digital games and are rarely found in tabletop games. I’ve been introducing them into my pen and paper campaigns a lot lately. As an example, instead of a straight roleplaying scene where the heroes accompany the king on a night ride through a city in civil war, I crafted a simple board game scenario out of it. The players had to choose which of their allies to use against which threat, and then deal with the outcome in person. This elevated something that could’ve been a very brief roleplaying moment into a more tangible situation with interesting decisions and thus more dramatic weight to it.

Digital games are very good in this sort of thing. They almost always have these abstract systems in place on the meta level. As an example take Alpha Protocol’s mission preparation and choosing or XCOM’s base building and planetary surveillance. That gives the games overarching structure and purpose. The same holds true in a tabletop game, and could be more commonly used in long-term games. As a good example, in a game I played our character sheets became this sort of abstract meta system with their own mysteries, only revealed under certain in-game circumstances. We also had a deck of tarot cards shared by all the groups playing the game (there were a lot of players). Over the duration of the very long campaign, some players claimed certain cards of the tarot as their own, and the groups started to affect each other.


Finally, the “resource” level is about giving players the option of using or withholding something they’ve been given. Both tabletop and digital games very typically have the problem that the mere pursuit of more stuff is not very compelling, and players are really bad in actually ever using everything that’s been given to them – case in point, health potions. In most cases this is simply a case of the game’s overall math and power economy needing more attention. In my D&D campaign I’ve slowly turned up the difficulty until the players have started to run out of potions and other assets. This keeps the game tense. Game designers and game masters often miss the fact that the players actually enjoy being in a bind!

Something often found in tabletop games is that players have less obvious resources: influence, contacts, allies, knowledge, history and so forth. Many of these would be tricky to represent properly in a digital game because they’re so open-ended, but a good case could be made for a lot of them. Alpha Protocol tries some of this in an intriguing way – letting you choose your allies and how much you invest in them, being rewarded both on a personal and a tangible level, with also some nasty surprises in wait – and I only wish it did more. The key is tying these resources to some of the other systems in play, for example limited use abilities on the battlefield. Even if you think that the tabletop possibilities are too unlimited for a digital game, a lot of the dramatic possibilities with non-item resources actually fall into just a few categories, which could very well be represented in a digital game, too. In this way David Braben’s Outsider was a very interesting project and I hope we get to hear more of it one day.


In conclusion, game designers should play a lot of games of both the digital and tabletop variety and pay attention to the mechanics, especially when they’re not readily apparent “rules”. A lot of the hard to define stuff in a tabletop game actually does follow rules when you think about it a little harder and most of it would do a world of good to digital games.

Freeware PC roleplaying tabletop games

Card Hunter and digital vs physical gaming

Card Hunter wallpaper
Card Hunter has the best visual design for a game I’ve seen in years.

As a regular reader might know, I play a lot of roleplaying games of the paper-based, face to face variety, as well as other tabletop games. So I pay attention whenever digital games approach this realm.

Obviously tabletop Dungeons & Dragons has had a major effect, inspiring digital games from 1970s onwards, and that inspiration has flowed the other way, too, with the current edition of D&D taking a lot of design cues from digital online RPGs (MMOs). My currently running D&D campaign uses a lot of very structured play – rules – and we spend the majority of our time at the table hunched over a map, pushing miniatures around. It is, essentially, a tactical exercise. If you leave out the human interaction and just hanging out with friends, is this something that could be adequately replicated in a digital game? One might think you could even improve considerably, what with today’s 3D rendering and computers taking care of the number crunching.

There is a very interesting case in point in Card Hunter, the beta of which is currently opening up. It makes an infectious, charming effort to take you by the hand and recreate that 1980s kitchen table where you sat down with your teenage friends to play (A)D&D. Even if you never did, I believe the feel-good warmth of it comes through. If you did, it’s equal parts endearing and maddeningly nostalgic. Those days may never return, but this is probably the closest you’re going to get. Card Hunter goes as far as including a newbie game master that stumbles through explaining the game to you, his more experienced, obnoxious older brother, and a pizza delivery girl the GM has a crush on. The game is presented as laid out on a table, surrounded by dice, cheese puffs and soda cans. The actual game components are cardboard, representing collectible cards and cardboard cutout characters on little plastic stands. I find the aesthetic completely irresistible.

Interestingly, Card Hunter’s approach mirrors what’s been happening in the tabletop roleplaying scene for some years now – a return to the simpler pleasures of hitting monsters with a sword and taking their stuff. There’s been a wave of retro-revival games, some of them very good.

Card Hunter is not roleplaying per se – all you do is fight exquisitely balanced tactical battles. Character development is all about equipping the gear you want, which in turn grant you more cards for that character’s deck. Mechanically, it combines the best elements of tabletop roleplaying by way of Dungeons & Dragons and collectible card games. But what you actually do at the table – fight battles over a grid-based layout, considering positioning and powers – resembles our bi-weekly D&D sessions very closely. It’s missing the real life banter and color you get from the characters’ long histories, loyalties and conflicts, ongoing jokes and drama, but the rules level and tactical space is similar.

Card Hunter screenshot
Card Hunter gameplay.

So does the tabletop experience have anything over the digital adaptation, on a mechanical level? You do get to play faster, and the fights resolve much quicker on the sceen, after all.

Even if you count out the face to face interaction, there are things digital games just can’t do, which turn an hours long tabletop confrontation with monsters into a memorable scene, whereas any given fight tends to be forgettable in a videogame – even if the fighting itself is very enjoyable, as is the case with Card Hunter.

I have a longer post coming up on this – the systemic differences of digital and tabletop games – but it’s interesting to see the differences just on the tactical level: grid and characters and powers. Because a videogame rarely relies on imagination, what you see is what you get. Characters on a grid are just characters on a grid, they aren’t actually just representations of the real game that’s taking place in the shared imagination of the players at the table. There are rules for movement and line of sight, but the digital game can’t adapt to surprising changes. You can’t suddenly bring in elements from above the flat game board or change things – unless, of course, they’ve been planned that way from the beginning. As the intensity ramps up in a tabletop fight, the players get crazy creative, using their powers in surprising ways, trying to find a way past their circumstances. In Card Hunter I must pray for the right combination of cards to get me through my “single hit point left and three foes standing” predicament, whereas in a tabletop game I might run away or improvise with a magic missile, perhaps bringing down the roof to buy some time.

And that element of the unknown is what keeps me coming back to the tabletop experience. Even if things start from an equal setup, a different group of players is always going to shape it into something new.

There are things I believe digital games could add to have a better chance of replicating that tabletop freedom of creative play despite basically quite strict and clear rules. But more on those in that longer post.


Thank you for the music

ESP LTD M-50. It’s all about the angles. I don’t have the whammy bar installed.

In April 2013 Harmonix Music Systems stopped their weekly song updates to their videogame Rock Band. Up to now they had 281 consecutive weeks of adding tracks to the game, ending up with a catalogue of 4262 songs.

Back in January 2008 when I first encountered Rock Band I was still part-timing as a game journalist. EA Finland had decided to introduce the game by renting an actual rehearsal space in a music hotel, setting it up with very high volume, lighting, projector, mic stand and everything. As a games writer I was invited and proceeded to spend tens of hours in the space – our first session lasted fourteen hours.

During one of those sessions I was singing by myself – I must’ve been the first one to arrive. I had been curious about the singing and everybody was avoiding it. I was surprised by someone walking in while I was singing. While rattled, I kept on singing, and felt really good about it – having an audience, in a sense. Contrary to most others, I was putting the original vocal track’s volume way down and upping the mic. I wanted to hear myself.

So I picked up singing and proceeded to force it unto others. I remember a moment in that space, singing the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Maps” – a song that’s difficult for me (still is) – with the full band backing, that you know, being in a real band would be awesome beyond words.

I didn’t much think about it back then as it seemed like a fantasy that could never happen, but the seed was planted then and there.

We proceeded to play really rather a lot of Rock Band, all through to RB3. Singing kept growing on me.

About two years later (2010) I picked up a real electric guitar, totally inspired by Rock Band and totally chosen by my wife, for its looks – she has an identical instrument. I wasn’t that much into the guitar per se as it still seems too technical for me, but I just needed to play music and understand music better. Pretend playing the songs had given me a newfound appreciation for music. But it was always about the band, and the singing. I knew I wanted to front a band on a gig.

Since then I’ve been practicing on and off on the guitar. I can only play shitty rhythm guitar a little bit, but it’s just enough to at times give me the feeling of “holy shit I’m making music!”

Rouhgly at the same time I stumbled on the “52 Weeks” blog series on the Harmonix community site, chaired by Helen “HMXHellion” McWilliams. Her story was the most inspirational thing I’ve read in my life, of getting a guitar because Joan Jett is awesome and of writing a letter to your whole company, explaining how you want to start a band. And then making it happen, their track “Seven” ending up as a personal favorite in Rock Band. These women were not life long musicians, they basically just picked up instruments and went for it, well past teenage years.

Ever since then I’ve had this thought at the back of my mind of actually starting a band one day, for real. But in my mind that one day was perhaps closer to retirement age, when I had run into a group of friends with the same dream. I had talked about this with my friends, but it felt like the stars wouldn’t align any time soon.

So this year Harmonix stopped updating Rock Band. We would still have a couple of Rock Band parties per year, until our plastic finally gives up, but to me it felt like the end of an age. The dream was there, fading ever so slowly, and I couldn’t let it go. There was an anxiety building up, something unanswered. Rock Band being an evolving, living thing was answering some call I had inside me, and now it was going away, I had to answer it myself.

Ubisoft made another cool rock game, Rocksmith. I’ve been practicing with that and a couple of weeks ago I realized that when backed by a proper band (on tape), and run through a good software amp, my simple rendition of “Go With The Flow” by Queens Of The Stone Age on a real guitar sounds okay.

Fully realizing that this is all based on videogames, I hesitated for two full days, before finally posting a message on Facebook, explaining my goal: to start a shitty punk band right now, at the tender age of 34.

To my dismay, in a couple of hours there were enough volunteers for two bands.

We haven’t had our first rehearsal yet, and it could be that it won’t be a shitty punk band after all (I’m the only non-musical guy in the group), but we do have a goal of having a gig in a year, if we get that far. What I do know is that if it doesn’t work out, I’m going to start another band. And eventually, yes, I will front a band on stage.

It is the mission of Harmonix to “share the joy of creating and performing music with everyone, regardless of their musical experience”. It took five years of tireless, constant inspiration by you, but I can finally say: thank you for the music.

PS. More videogame companies should have missions.

PPS. It looks like there’s a lot of people around who really should start bands today.


roleplaying tabletop games

Running a D&D campaign for seven people

Map of the insect store - the heroes’ home for most of second season
Map of the insect store – the heroes’ home for most of second season

We’ve been playing the same Dungeons & Dragons (fourth edition) campaign for over two years now. Twenty-four games, ten players, levels one through eight. The goal was always to play all the way up to level ten, bookending the first “tier” of play, and now, with the second season concluded successfully, it feels like we’ll make it for sure.

The one thing that makes our D&D game special and unlikely – at least by the standards I’m used to – is that we have seven steady players. In most of our games, it’s the full seven players present, plus myself running the show. I never thought it could work, but I couldn’t bear to deny anyone entry, so we decided to give it a shot. And what do you know, it works so well that I would be uncomfortable running the game for, say, just four players, which used to be my sweet spot. But having this many players at the table means a couple of things, which I’m going to dive into here.


Something that can be hard to plan for is the interpersonal chemistry at the table. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it! But in a game this big, it requires extra thought because any conflict or friction is going to quickly escalate. I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about it, optimizing who’s playing who, who’s sitting with whom and just generally who we invite.

I am super happy with our chemistry. Missing anyone in a given game means we have a skewed dynamic. There’s a sense of loss. You might think that this is a problem, because when are you going to have eight people available for every game, roughly every other week? But at least in our case, everybody makes the time and people generally very rarely miss games. Probably it all being so unlikely brings a sort of gravitas to the proceedings.

One detail I’ve been wondering about is whether our gender balance changes this in some way – we have usually a 50-50 gender mix or leaning by one in one direction. I have not reached a conclusion on that, but if anything, it helps.


The game’s logistics are somewhat demanding. Just having the room for eight people can be a problem. The amount of game you can fit into a single night is surprising – in how little it is. The seven players talking among themselves takes a lot of time. I can generally manage 1-3 roleplaying scenes, with 1-2 fights. We like to eat before or during the game and if we’re cooking for the whole group, you better pencil in that whole day just for preparing food. Also normal campaign upkeep like levelling characters and printing sheets is something you need to set aside time for.

Running a combat with seven players plus a familiar and a roughly equal number of worthy enemies is a lot of work. My players like to take command of the battle mat, and I’m benefitting from that, having them track both initiatives and hit points for the entire cast, including their foes. It also helps the players focus on the game.


The number of players and their abilities means that most mechanical challenges are pushovers, no matter what the numbers say. I’ve upped the difficulty level all through the campaign to make it challenging enough, and it’s still tough hitting that sweet spot. My advice would be to go overboard rather than shy away from pushing them – the players have so many tricks up their sleeves in 4E it’s very difficult to actually hurt them in the long-term. This works the same way in fights. The recommended numbers in Challenge Rating do not apply at all – I’m routinely overshooting by over a third to create situations the players will find fun and challenging. D&D combat is best when a number of characters are in genuine danger of dying and it’s the gamemaster’s job to provide that.


The biggest issue is storytelling. While we’ve talked about character development, internal conflicts and so forth at the table, it’s just hard to come by any sort of meaningful drama in such a big group. A couple of sessions ago I introduced a mechanical solution. Every time the players rest – basically sitting down in camp – one of the players is required to develop their character. Like in Mountain Witch, the story doesn’t advance until someone progresses their personal story.

Of course this requires that all of their characters actually have compelling conflicts and built-in drama that just needs an outlet.

In practice, the players are instructed to either set a scene and welcome the other players to resolve it for them, or vice versa – exactly as in Fiasco. Others can jump in, and almost automatically relationships deepen and take sudden turns. Even though the “drama turn” revolves around the group, and it’s artificial in that way, so far it’s worked admirably. I think most games could use a mechanic like this, especially when in big groups where it may be difficult to find the time in the spotlight and loud players automatically get all the attention.


Another mechanical knock-on effect has been our use of board game style mechanisms. I often draw up and outline a mechanic the players need to operate in. This is designed to take them through a long part of non-combat play. While many might scoff at this fashion of mechanics “replacing roleplaying”, what actually happens is that the mechanics make roleplaying possible in the large group. The mechanics direct the players’ attention and by way of providing barriers and requirements, inspire roleplaying. I started by using Skill Challenges a lot, and have gradually made it more structured and abstract. Examples of these “mini-games”:

  • Running an insect store for a week
  • Sneaking across the fallen, petrified body of a dead god
  • Fighting through a city in upheaval, escorting the king through rebellious city guard
  • Exploring a swamp, hex by hex, looking for the hydra’s hoard
  • Singing contest (Eurovision special game)

I’m going to run some smaller games on our D&D break during the summer. We’ll see if there’s cross-pollination in one direction or the other – I fully expect some insights!

culture technology

Oculus Rift and virtual reality

Oculus Rift - early development kit hardware
Oculus Rift – early development kit hardware

You’re sure you’ve seen it before. Maybe an ad in a computer magazine in the nineties? Maybe a music video? Surely a movie somewhere – Johnny Mnemonic? Max Headroom? One of those things. The Oculus Rift, its presence reinforced by the foreboding name (”a rift? What’s coming out of the rift? I don’t want to fall into the rift!”), is an artifact that is both from a shared recollection of a future that never was and a herald of a future that is, in fact, right here.

We have thought about “cyberspace” and virtual realities since the late eighties and early nineties, wondering how it would work, what it would be like, and what would be the benefits. Having test-driven the development kit edition of the soon to be launched virtual reality device, I’m both convinced and intrigued.

I am convinced because it works. You put on that helmet and your brain immediately just accepts it: this is how the world now works. When you hear you coworkers talking around you, they are disembodied demon voices, coming from wrong angles. It’s exciting and unsettling and undeniably new.

You may have heard about the low resolution, but it still surprises you how low it really is. In a technical sense, this is the most rudimentary, primitive virtual world you’ve seen since the original Half-Life. It’s also blurry, which may have been due to the set being adjusted for other people’s eyes. But in a minute or so it doesn’t matter. It turns out humans are really good at adapting to a changing sensory input.

The way the virtual world reacts correctly to your head movements is crucial to the immersion – I’m hesitant to call it an illusion, because in all the ways that matter in the moment, it is a reality you’re dealing with, albeit it only exists in your brain. When nothing you can see is in conflict with what you’re observing through your body, it doesn’t take any sort of conscious effort to slip into the experience. You forget about your real body as your mind adapts to the most pressing sensory feedback.

The level of immersion is total. There are issues with HUD graphics and movement – the way your body moves differently to the way you’re used to navigating first-person 3D spaces with a controller throws your inner ear out of whack, resulting in nausea. But once developers figure out best practices, it is very easy to see that this is going to be the preferred way of playing most first-person games, from shooters to simulations.

What I’m intrigued by is how much of an effect is the social aspect of interacting with screens going to have. When you’re immersed in the Oculus Rift experience, especially with headphones on, there is no way to get your attention, and indeed it is very disorienting if you’re interrupted while immersed. People are used to playing games on their TVs and monitors, but still in the company of others. I’m not sure I would feel entirely comfortable being that isolated, even if alone at home. Letting completely go of your awareness of your real-world surroundings can be scary.

Any misgivings aside, there is no doubt a device like this is going to have a profound effect on immersive experiences and achieve wide-spread success. It’s going to be interesting to see if it’s going to find mainstream success, though.