past time guys took a stand

Fri Apr-8th-2016 // Filed under: Games,I Rant!,Those Pesky Roles

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a good while, but I’ve had trouble articulating my thoughts properly. It’s not that it’s a complicated thing, really — it’s just that I want to be clear about it, if only because this is one of those topics where some people will be looking very, very hard for opportunities to misunderstand, which is the kind of nonsense I have no time or patience for.

So, in the interest of clarity, let’s start with this: I’m really talking to guys here. Hear me, fellow dudes. This concerns you, and by extension, many of the people I’m going to presume you love — but they aren’t the target audience here, boys. It’s you. It’s us guys.

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what game writers actually do

Fri Feb-12th-2016 // Filed under: Games,Words

I don’t write a lot about my work here mostly because I typically can’t. I can’t tell you what I’m working on or how it’s going, really; I can’t reveal anything we haven’t said before. So it’s generally just easier for me to avoid the topic.

Still, now that we’re very close to shipping Quantum Break, and I’ve moved on to Something Else, I’ve had a chance to reflect on things a little bit, and I feel like talking about writing games in general. Back when I was still busting ass on Quantum Break, which wasn’t very long ago at all, a lot of people — friends and random people on the internet alike — would go, “what, don’t you have the story done yet?” when they heard that I wasn’t, well, not working. Some people were genuinely mystified and/or concerned; others were kind of tongue in cheek, but it’s something I heard a lot.

So while I don’t feel comfortable talking about the specifics of what I was doing, exactly, let me take a step back and talk about what kind of work I was doing — specifically, what being a writer on a video game actually entails. This isn’t a universal experience, I should stress; different studios can have wildly different practices — this is just the kind of stuff I do at Remedy as a writer. Many studios still hire writers as contractors who aren’t directly involved with the team or the game production, and for them the work will be very different. (Not surprisingly, these also tend to be games where the story and the gameplay are not particularly well integrated into each other.) In any case, I’m aware of many misconceptions and assumptions people make about what game writers actually do.

One general point is that writers often write or at least edit a lot of stuff that isn’t directly story-related — mundane but necessary things like marketing materials or error messages. Quite often this involves rewriting things somebody else put in as a placeholder. Developers working in other disciplines often end up entering text into the game in one form or another by themselves, and that can cause a wide range of issues, ranging from using the wrong terminology (there are often internally used nicknames for enemies and features that aren’t actually a part of the intended player experience), to having a voice that’s incompatible with how the rest of the game is presented, to technical things like punctuation and capitalization — yes, there are very, very talented people who still struggle with concepts like “sentences start with a capital letter” and “you hit the space bar after the period, not before it.” It’s just not their field of expertise, just like their specialty isn’t mine.

At companies that have such a person on staff, these things are often taken care of by an editor, but unless your company hits a certain size, you’re unlikely to have an editor working at the office full-time. Thus, the writer also ends up wearing the editor’s hat, and is hopefully up to the task. (Not every writer is; some people are genuinely great writers in terms of constructing story or writing engaging dialogue, but still can’t spell or punctuate to save their lives. It takes a certain anal retentive approach to be good at that.)

So, here’s a list of all the tasks I can think of that I do, as a writer, in no particular order. Some of these are small tasks, some of these are big ongoing processes. Most of them involve dependencies, meaning that somebody else needs to do something before I can do my tasks, or someone else is depending on me to complete my tasks so they can finish theirs. That’s largely how I determine priorities for my work. (And it’s worth noting that I also do a bunch of other things that I won’t go into in here, because while they’re important, they aren’t really “writer stuff” per se.)

  • Character bios. Important for casting and for character concepting. If you’re looking for a Latino woman in her mid-thirties who can make technobabble sound natural, for instance, you actually need to write it out. What you write early on and what characters you actually end up with can be two very different things, but you have to start somewhere.
  • Story design. What happens, when, where, and to whom, and why. This a big one, and while you typically nail down core concepts early on, it will keep on changing through development for a myriad of reasons. You get feedback from the team and from the publisher, some of which you incorporate and some of which you ignore, but all of it needs to be evaluated and often responded to and discussed. Sometimes you realize what you had early on just wasn’t good enough. Or sometimes you get a better idea.
  • Dialogue. This is the other big one. What the characters say, how much of it they say, and when they say it. Dialogue typically takes a lot of revision — you write one version, then the player objectives change, or the story changes, or user research indicates that people get lost, or you just hear an actor actually say the words out loud and you realize how stupid it sounds, or… so many reasons. So many revisions.
  • Dialogue pacing. Closely related to the previous item, dialogue pacing is something that often ends up being a writing task, even if it’s actually being implemented by somebody else. Often nudging a line’s timing a little can make all the difference — when there’s a loud noise and the character’s reaction is just right, it feels good; if it’s off, it just feels wrong, even if the player can’t quite articulate why. And one thing you often see games screw up is the interruption — you know, the sort of thing where somebody is supposed to be interrupted, but what you actually end up hearing is Person A suddenly just stopping in mid-sentence, a pause of .6 seconds, and then Person B saying something that’s clearly meant to be an interruption. Very distracting. As the people who know how the dialogue should be implemented, writers often end up hunting down problems like this.
  • Revisions. Endless revisions. People often think that writing games is a linear process, where you sit down, write the story, and when it’s done, people turn that into a game. Not unless you’re doing a pretty bad job of narrative design. In reality, the story and the way you tell it keeps changing as the actual gameplay experience is being built. You add dialogue and other things to increase player clarity, to explain plot points, and for player guidance. You remove it if it’s confusing or seems to mislead the player away from their actual gameplay goal at the time. You cut or add or merge or rewrite scenes to reflect the current state of the gameplay. Designers change the way the puzzle works? Usually, the dialogue related to it also has to change. The player character gets a new ability? That can have an impact on the story.
  • Politics. You work in any company with a decent-sized headcount, there are politics. Before you go all House of Cards in your head, this doesn’t mean backstabbing and power plays, unless you’ve done some bad hiring; it just means that you have to negotiate for the things you want and make others see why they are important, and why they make the product better. There are limited resources and not everything can be the most important thing, so it takes communication and persuasion to get people to cooperate. In particular, when you’re the writer, you’re the primary person who advocates for the story. There are people who really hate this, and I can certainly relate to that, but if you can’t deal with it, you’ll always be the one bitching about decisions and never the one making them. Harsh, but true. (Be nice to people. Seriously, don’t be a dick.)
  • Meetings. So many meetings. Some of it is related to the previous item, but a lot of it is just taking care of business. Communication is a key thing. I’m a writer, but very little of my time is spent actually writing; as a joke-that-is-not-really-a-joke I like to say that about 90% of my working hours are spent in discussions where people tell me I can’t do what I want to do and I tell them why they can’t do what they want to do, and then we try to find solutions that satisfy everybody. Compromises, in other words.
  • Optional content. Stuff that isn’t on the player’s critical path (i.e., you can complete the game without encountering this content). This could be anything, really — it can often be text-only content along the lines of discoverable e-mail messages or other content (which, being text-only, is just about the cheapest content you can have in a game), or it can be something a little more elaborate. For instance, I wrote the Night Springs episodes and radio shows for Alan Wake fully aware that the player might decide to just ignore them, or or might not even find them. So while this material is important for the overall game and can be a great tool to bring depth to the game, you probably don’t want to hang anything the player needs to understand the core plot on it. This is something that can be plugged in fairly late in the process, because it won’t affect level pacing, this is often something we do towards the end of the project. It’s also an opportunity to address specific issues that may be raised by the team or come up in user research — if we realize that people are unclear on something or merely very curious about an aspect of the game world or story, we can create a piece of optional content that deals with the topic.
  • Player objectives, achievements, tutorials, menu items, etc. Typically not a part of the story, per se, but these things have an impact on the game’s atmosphere and style. These are often some of the last things we finalize, because you can’t really do it properly until everything else in the game is nailed down — you can’t write a tutorial text about how to use a power if its actual functionality is still a little up in the air. Typically, it’s a good idea to have a writer work on these, or at least do an editing pass on them after a designer’s been through them.
  • Marketing support. Quite often copy is needed, and when they need it, they often come to the source. If you want something to introduce characters or summarize the plot, it’s usually best if I write it, rather than, for instance, some marketing person somewhere who may not even be directly involved with the game, possibly using some two-year-old out-of-date document somebody forwarded to them — which, given a large enough organization and multiple aspects of the project being advanced at the same time, can happen. Often they just need somebody to explain to them what the game is really about, and what kind of stuff they can talk about and what they should sit on so as to not spoil the experience.
  • Ancillary projects. Games are often accompanied by other materials — it could be transmedia fiction, art books, strategy guides, etc. Whether or not I actually work on those directly, they often require my feedback, if nothing else. And if there happened to be something like, oh, a live-action show that was very closely tied to the game you were working on, that might conceivably eat up a huge amount of your time even if you didn’t actually write it yourself. Conceivably.
  • Actor performances. I actually do a lot of things on this front, but many of them aren’t necessarily about writing. That said, when an actor gets involved, they typically have a lot of questions about their character and the story in general. It’s important to bring them up to speed and making sure they not only understand the story, but are focusing on the correct aspects of it in their performance.
  • Audio work. When it comes to people I end up working extremely closely with, the audio team tends to be at the top of the list — getting that dialogue right, or getting proper audio cues or filters in place is something that often requires very detailed discussions. Likewise, they often have questions and concerns about dialogue implementation that only a writer can properly answer. In our specific case, the dialogue I write is actually linked directly to our dialogue database, which grants certain advantages — and imposes certain limitations. Either way, it also creates a need for fairly constant communication with the audio teamk.
  • Subtitles. Do they match what’s being said? Actors often end up saying something slightly different, or in some cases entirely different from the actual line for various reasons. Tracking these changes and making sure they are reflected in the game subtitles is an important task.
  • Localization. This one can be a doozy, because there’s just so much content in most modern games. When you localize a game, it can be a tremendously complicated and time-consuming process — even when it’s being mostly handled by another party, such as the publisher, you still have to lend a lot of support to them, because the people translating the actual text — who often work under incredibly tight deadlines and for not a lot of money (full disclosure: I did translation work for a decade back in my freelancin’ days) — don’t actually know what the fuck it is they’re translating. They have very little or no context — all they get is, essentially, an Excel sheet full of text strings they have to translate. (Because we can’t take the risk of something leaking, we often can’t send them full screenplays, let alone gameplay videos or the like.) So when they don’t know what’s going on, they send queries we need to answer, preferably as clearly as possible. As a practical example, we had a situation where a line of dialogue read “Okay…”, and the the translator sent a query asking what that was in response to. In the language in question, the difference between “yes, I agree to do this” and “yes, I understand,” for instance, was noticeable, so they had to know what it was in response to, and they couldn’t figure it out from the information they had. (In actuality, this was actually a character speaking to himself, reacting to an elevator stopping unexpectedly. But the translator had no way of knowing that.)
  • Bugs. A lot of bugs require my attention, even if they aren’t story bugs per se — often I’m not expected to fix them, but somebody needs advice or a judgment call on whether something is a serious issue, or indeed a bug at all.

There. A fairly long list, and I have no doubt I’ve forgotten an essential thing or two. All of these things fall under the heading of “game writing” — or at least they do for me where I work. Storytelling is obviously a huge priority for us, but in the grand scheme of doing everything that needs doing in order to ship a game, it’s just one thing among many demanding our attention.

As a final note, as games can be very complex things, just keeping tabs on everything that needs doing can be an intimidating task. I can’t overstate the value of competent producers who can actually track all the crap that needs tracking, and poke you when you need to be poked. I can keep track of my own stuff, but having people in my corner who constantly deal with many disciplines and let me know what they need and when — that’s incredibly valuable. Making games is very much a team effort, and when the team dynamic is humming along, that makes getting through the above list much easier, and will perhaps even keep you from wanting to drink yourself to death. Bonus!



not even kidding about any of this

Sun Dec-15th-2013 // Filed under: Games,I Rant!

So… another week, another story of a woman in gaming being ridiculed, or belittled, or threatened with rape, or just piled on by a horde of people who really aren’t very good people at all. It happens, and it happens a lot.

It makes me pretty angry. I am, of course, speaking only for myself, not my employer. (I’m assuming that most people I work with would agree with me, even if they might elect to be a little less crude about it. I say this because the people I work with aren’t hateful jerks. But I can’t speak for them, either.)

I have two things I’m going to talk about. The first one is the problem and how I think we should start dealing with it, and the second one is how I feel about it personally.

It’s a pretty long post, so settle in. I’m getting a lot off my chest here.

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a long kentucky night

Tue Mar-26th-2013 // Filed under: Games

I’ve just completed Act I of Kentucky Route Zero by Cardboard Computer, and it is amazing.

It’s a point and click adventure game, in which you control Conway, a delivery man who’s trying to deliver a truckload of antiques to 5 Dogwood Drive, but he doesn’t know the way. Turns out that a secret underground highway, Route Zero, is his best option, and, well, I don’t even want to tell you anything else about the actual events, because that would be spoiling it.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: the game looks gorgeous. It’s been created with indie resources — that is to say, without the kind of financial backing a big studio game would have; this is the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign, which netted the two-man team at Cardboard Computer $8,583 — not exactly a king’s ransom, and I have no doubt that the duo have put a lot of their own money and sweat into the game.

And it has paid off, because this is one of the most beautiful and atmospheric games I have ever had the pleasure to play. I’ve heard it compared to Another World (or Out of This World, as it’s known in North America), and it’s a fairly apt comparison — both games feature a great number of silhouettes and eschew bright colors.

The difference is, of course, that for Another World, that look was rather cutting edge for its day, and, to a great extent, imposed by the technological limitations of the day — realistically speaking, that game couldn’t have been much more impressive. In the case of Kentucky Route Zero, it’s a subtler choice — a far more artistic choice. At the same time, it’s just good design — creating graphical assets is pretty much the single most expensive part of making video games.

For a two-man outfit, hiding things in darkness and suggesting details, rather than showing them, is undoubtedly a bit of a necessity, especially when you have a have a game like this, where you can’t just recycle assets easily. You need to be smart about how you spend your money. Not that the game looks remotely cheap; quite the contrary, every image in Kentucky Route Zero is beautiful.

It also sounds fantastic. The audioscape is sparse; most of the time, the game is quiet, or, at least, you would be forgiven for thinking that. The ambient sounds are easy to ignore, but that’d be an oversight, because there’s a rich world out there — distant cars driving along an unseen highway, the gurgle of fish tanks, the crackling of an ancient PA system. Occasionally, there’s music, whether it’s a badly degraded old recording, or a muffled choir singing in a church. Mostly, things are quiet and understated, so when you do hear something, it leaves an impression. I found myself holding my breath when I became aware of a new sound.

The dialogue, which is fairly plentiful, isn’t spoken; it’s just text, and yet there are human sounds that are almost startling in their intimacy — a man breathing into a microphone, his distorted exhalation echoing through untold depths. They do a lot of that kind of thing in Kentucky Route Zero.

The actual adventure gameplay is not terribly deep, I suppose. It’s not what the game is going for. It’s more about the experience than about solving a puzzle. If you are so inclined, I suppose you can hold it against the game, but I think that’d be a mistake. There is exploration, and there’s dialogue, and the things the characters talk — and think — about are more important and interesting than using the wrench on a bolt would be. It’s not a difficult game, but it is a game that rewards the careful player. There are little vignettes, curious and surreal moments sprinkled liberally along those Kentucky back country roads.

The dialogue is where the game often shines. You’re not really talking to others in order to make them give you something or do something for you. Rather, you are defining things as you play through the game — for instance, Conway has a dog, and through a dialogue choice you determine its sex and its name. Likewise, through dialogue it becomes obvious that Conway likes his drink; how much that affects his thinking, how much he dwells on the past, is something you can determine, or at least affect.

And it’s not just Conway — sometimes you start a conversation as one character, and then when it’s time for the other person to respond, you choose that response as well. There’s a great deal of introspection, and it’s very well written — evocative and atmospheric. Sometimes it’s funny. Often it’s sad. It’s always interesting.

There’s also a lot of surreal weirdness, but it’s the kind that doesn’t seem weird for the sake of being weird. It’s a long night in Kentucky, and you encounter people and situations that seem to exist just slightly outside normal reality. It’s a bit of a ghost story, a bit of a Lynchian trek into the subconscious. Every once in a while, it’s scary — but this isn’t a horror game, really; rather, it makes you feel the weight of the years and reminds you of your own inevitable mortality, or the mistakes you have made, of the regrets you have — or Conway does, anyway.

And there are secrets. Sometimes, you have a lamp that you can turn on and off, and while in the darkness you don’t see much, things are still revealed in startling and enticing ways. I saw ghosts. I saw them walking alongside as I sat in a rickety cart somewhere deep underground. I caught a glimpse of a unicorn.

This first act of the game isn’t very long. It took me about 90 minutes to play through it. But it was worthwhile. I’ve got it on my brain now, and I can’t wait for the next act — there will be five in total, and the next one is scheduled to come out in April.

I found Route Zero. I can’t wait to explore it.

Oh, and yeah, the season pass is 25% off on Steam right now. That’s a seriously good deal.



zombie’s dilemma

Tue May-29th-2012 // Filed under: Games

That’s right, another DayZ post. I haven’t been able to put anywhere near as much time into this game as I’d like to, but I keep thinking about it constantly. One of things I touched on in my previous post was the concept of banditry — people killing you for your gear, or just ’cause. I wanted to write some more about that.

Being a bandit is something that until very recently had a very specific meaning in DayZ. Until the latest update, if you killed innocent people, your Humanity score went down, and you gained a bandit skin for your character — meaning that people would know you to be a murderer. This is no longer the case. Now you can’t tell who’s a bandit just by looking at them — which adds a whole new level of uncertainty to encounters.

There’s a huge PVP element in DayZ. Don’t get me wrong, the zombies are a danger, absolutely. So are hunger, thirst and cold — but they are reasonably predictable things. These things can kill you, but they typically aren’t that hard to deal with. If you don’t get too stupid about it, and especially if you have a friend or two to help you, you can cope; once you have managed to get a certain basic level of equipment, you can probably handle most situations pretty well.

But it becomes a whole another story when you’re trying to make sure you don’t die of zombies, hunger, or exposure, and you constantly have to worry about whether somebody’s taking aim on you.

Could be somebody with a sniper rifle on the nearby hill or rooftop. Could be a group of ruthless bastards with fantastic gear. Could be just one desperate guy who’s starving and who will do anything to get the food in your pack. Could be somebody who sees you coming and is sure that you’re about to murder him for the food in his pack.

Could be one of your friends, even — the guy who’s supposed to be watching your back.

Again, DayZ is based on Arma II, a military simulation that strives for realism. It’s not one of those games where people are bullet sponges. A few shots to the body from even the lightest handgun in the game, and you’re probably dead or dying. A headshot from the puniest weapon in the game will drop you like third period French. This means that every encounter can be extremely deadly — you can’t go around thinking that because you have great gear, you’re safe. You may have an advantage, but if someone gets the drop on you, you can still die in an eyeblink.

And because the game has permadeath, once you die, you lose everything. Spend hours getting that good gear? Too bad, Buckaroo, you’re gonna have to start right over with that shitty little Makarov and one can of food. Lots of luck.

Pulling that trigger isn’t a small thing. You really don’t want to start something you can’t finish.

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when there is no more room in hell

Tue May-22nd-2012 // Filed under: Games

DayZ is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating and compelling gaming experiences I’ve had in a while.

Before I get into it, let me say this: I love zombies. Yes, yes, I know, there are zombies everywhere now, it’s boring, blah blah blah. Shut up. The problem isn’t that there are zombies everywhere, the problem is that there are bad zombies everywhere.

See, I think most people making zombie fiction don’t seem to understand what it is about zombies that’s awesome. They often feel the need to spice them up, not understanding that adding freakish mutations, or mad scientists, or big explosions, or special weapons just isn’t conducive to a great zombie experience. Nowhere is this more apparent than in video games. Most developers just aren’t willing to tackle that extremely Romeroish, Dawn of the Dead type of experience, where the focus is on survival and human interaction in the shadow of a horrible, apocalyptic event.

DayZ is. And that’s why DayZ is cool.

This is a PC game, an Arma II mod, and it’s currently in alpha — so things are by no means complete. I haven’t been playing it for long, but what I’ve seen this far is fascinating.

There are no missions, no objectives. There are no experience levels. Your character is persistent, meaning that your location, inventory and general status get saved when you log off. (The mod has been super popular lately, and that means just getting into the game can be a challenge — the central database server where they save this stuff is taking a constant beating.)

Oh, and if you get killed? Start over from scratch.

So survival is the name of the game. That’s all — just don’t get killed. Oh, and you’ll need something to eat and drink on a regular basis, or you’ll die. In the latest version, you can catch an infection and get sick, and the only way that’ll get fixed is by finding antibiotics. If you get hurt, you’ll need bandages, painkillers and blood transfusions. Weapons and ammunition are limited to what you can find, which typically isn’t too much. You scavenge for supplies, you try to avoid zombies, and you will die. It’s not a question of whether that’ll happen — in DayZ, everybody dies. It’s just a question how long you can make it before that happens.

It’s not just the zombies that’ll kill you. It’s also that whole “dog eat dog” mentality — there are always going to be people who want what you’ve got. They’ll shoot you in the head for a can of beans. So seeing other players is a mixed blessing at best. Some are very nice and helpful. Others are not. Good luck.

At the time of this writing, the average life expectancy for players is 28 minutes, which tells you a lot about how popular the mod has become — when I joined up a couple of weeks back, it was around four and a half hours, but with the constant influx of new players, that’s gone way down. They’ll learn.

The game is set in a 225 km² post-Soviet world. There are cities, forests, hills, industrial areas, docks, airfields — and all of it is infested by zombies. They mostly concentrate around built-up areas.

All of this is just a preface to the actual DayZ story I’m about to tell — how I mounted a rescue mission in this bleak, dangerous and unforgiving world, and how that turned out.

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good intentions, bad l10n

Wed Mar-28th-2012 // Filed under: Games

I encountered a kind of depressing “can’t see the forest for the trees” situation today — something that’s undoubtedly the result of good intentions, but which just doesn’t take real world conditions into account at all.

Today, I installed the Origin client. I finally wanted to get Mass Effect 3. I’ve been a pretty happy Steam user for a good while now, but unfortunately the game is only available on Origin, so that wasn’t an option. Actually, I’m more or less fine with that; I’m like a lot of people in that it often takes me a while to get around to adopting new things, but once I do, I tend to get comfortable with them pretty quickly.

EA is one of those companies that has a kind of an obsession with localizing things. If that sounds like a negative thing, I don’t mean it like that. I kind of love localization as a concept; I used to work for a localization company and I have translated hundreds of thousands of words over the years. There was a point in my life when it was my primary source of income. So I have an interest in it, and I know it’s very useful to a lot of people.

I also know that for a lot of companies, providing certain services in the customers’ own language is a point of pride. For EA, that has certainly seemed to be the case for a while now, and I wholeheartedly applaud that. They have localized entire games into Finnish, and as a rule, the localizations have been very, very good — in particular, I remember the Finnish version of Sim City 4, which was tremendously well-made. It was clever and very funny. And they did it the smart way, too; you could select the original English as your language if you preferred it that way.

But, to be blunt, there may be a bit of an American sentiment at play here, the idea that if people can’t get it in their own language, they will be instantly put off and refuse to have anything to do with it. People often think that offering everything in a country’s native language is of utmost importance; that making that experience as seamless and hard to circumvent as possible is a requirement so nobody ends up with a horrible foreign language in their face and gets spooked.

And I’m sorry, but throughout much of Europe, that’s not the case. The hardcore gamers here in particular are quite proficient in English, and often prefer it for various reasons that aren’t even important here. It’s enough to know that they do. I don’t think they mind services that have been localized, really; it’s just that when they run into them, they go into the settings menu and change the language back into English. That’s what I do.

To be clear: I’m not saying there’s no call for localized products and services in Finland — there absolutely is, and EA does the right thing trying to provide them; it’s particularly great they do it with products that are intended for young children and families. It’s just that the (relatively large) hardcore audience doesn’t find it very useful.

So when I install Origin, it insists on speaking Finnish to me. It can tell that I’m located in Finland, and that’s the language it chooses. Again, this is understandable, and it’s a reasonable thing to do. As long as you can change the language later on, no problem. (Though actually, it would be a good idea to offer the option to change the language right off the bat, because I could be an English-speaking person living in Finland, like many of my friends and colleagues — but they can probably make it through the installation process even if they don’t grok the lingo.)

Then Origin actually launches, and you can log in — another hurdle if you don’t understand Finnish, but you’re likely to make it through that, too. And then you can change the language from the settings. (Yeah. One more hurdle.) So I take care of that, and now the Origin client is speaking English to me, which makes me happy.

But the actual content the client is displaying to me is still in Finnish, because I’m in Finland. So everything in the Origin Store — product descriptions, terms of service, everything — is in Finnish. And if I was a foreigner living in Finland, at this point things would start to get really tricky.

For me, personally, this is mostly just an inconvenience and an annoyance. I say “mostly,” because sometimes the translations just aren’t very good, and they may leave out certain things, which is one reason why I prefer the original English versions. For example, I know how easy it is for a text string to change later on, and yet the translation may remain the same. But if I’m honest, for me the biggest reason reason is that I just like everything to be in one language — my operating system, my software, everything. Call it OCD, if you like.

But if I had just moved here from an English-speaking country, perhaps because of a job? Well.

Being less than happy with all this, I start looking for a setting to change this. I’m sure there’s one, I just don’t know where it is right away. And I look and look, but I can’t find it. And eventually I give up and contact tech support via chat. I only have to wait maybe ten seconds for someone to talk to me.

Here’s our conversation:

You are now ready to chat with Pooja.

Pooja:
Thanks for contacting EA Help! My name is Pooja how may I help you?

you:
Hey. Is there any way for me to force the Origin Store to speak English to me? I’m in Finland, I have the Origin client set to use English, but the store insists on being in Finnish.

Pooja:
Hello

Pooja:
Thanks for explaining the issue.

Pooja:
I request you to please login into origin.

Pooja:
Then go to the settings.

Pooja:
Then you would find the language option.

you:
On the website, you mean? Not the client?

Pooja:
Please login into www.origi.com

Pooja:
*www.origin.com

you:
Sure. That directs me to http://store.origin.com/store/eaemea/fi_FI/home/ThemeID.850300/ccRef.en_US — and I can’t see anything like “account settings” or “your account” or anything like that in there.

you:
My only account-specific option there seems to be the button that lets me log out.

Pooja:
Okay, Please go to the gear icon.

you:
There is no gear icon that I can see on the website.

Pooja:
Please look for the round icon above the friend list.

you:
Um, I don’t have a friends list, either.

Pooja:
Yes, go to the website where origin takes you.

Pooja:
Please allow me to share the desktop.

[At this point, a new window opens up for me, but obviously their desktop sharing thing didn’t work. I get an error message in the window, which I pasted to him below.]

you:
Not Found The requested URL /hc/6657116/ was not found on this server. Apache/2.2.19 (Unix) mod_jk/1.2.30 Server at customersupport.ea.com Port 80

Pooja:
Okay.

Pooja:
Please accept the request for desktop sharing.

you:
I would love to accept such a request, but I haven’t received one. All I got was a new window with the “Not found” error message I pasted above.

you:
Also, just to be clear: when you talk about the gear icon and the friends list, you ARE talking about the website, correct? Not the Origin client? Because I do have those items on the Origin client itself.

Pooja:
Have you downloaded the origin?

you:
I just said I have the Origin client. Yes, I have downloaded it. I have downloaded it, and I have changed the langauge setting on the Origin client to English, but that only affects the software, the client itself. It doesn’t change the language of the store itself. All of my menu options on the ORIGIN CLIENT are in English, but in the ORIGIN STORE, as viewed through the client, everything is in Finnish.

you:
Do you want a screenshot of what I mean? I can arrange one if you want it.

Pooja:
No, I understood your point.

Pooja:
I would like to inform you that the store language cannot be changed.

you:
Really.

Pooja:
Yes.

Pooja:
I apologize that I have taken much time in understanding your issue.

you:
So if I can’t speak Finnish, but I’m in Finland, there is no way for me to use Origin without a translator? This is what you are telling me?

Pooja:
Yes.

Pooja:
If you have any other issue or query apart from this issue I may assist you with, today.
Please let me know. I will do my best to help you.

you:
Wow.

you:
Well, thanks, I guess.

Pooja:
I can understand, but this is country specific. We cannot do anything in this regard.

Pooja:
You’re welcome.

Pooja:
Thanks for understanding the issue.

Pooja:
I appreciate it.

you:
Well, amazingly enough, Steam has managed to do this for, oh, a bunch of years now. This is not an unsurmountable technical issue. I realize it’s not your fault, and not something you can do anything about right now, but if you could perhaps pass on the message that this is kind of ridiculous, I would appreciate it.

you:
I don’t mean to make your life miserable here, I realize that you’re just trying to help me.

you:
Thanks for your time.

Pooja:
You’re welcome.

Pooja:
I appreciate your understanding in the issue.

Pooja:
Had it been possible, I would have provided you the information regarding the laguage change.

Pooja:
*language

you:
Sure, I get that. Not your fault.

you:
Well, I guess we’re done. Have a nice day!

Now, let me just be clear here: my problem is not with Pooja. He was helpful and polite, and he would have helped me if he could have. None of this is his fault. There was a little misunderstanding concerning what I was talking about, but to be fair, something like this can be a little confusing. The customer service I got from him was just about as good as I could possibly expect to get in my situation, short of a magic spell that fixes everything. Pooja was cool.

But this is a ridiculous situation to be in. This is the year 2012, and people move around. You cannot make a blanket assumption that everybody with a Finnish IP address speaks Finnish, and even if you do, saying that everybody with a Finnish IP address must speak Finnish and no other languages can be offered seems entirely misguided.

Now, I don’t need this feature right now, it’s true — I would very much like to have it, but I can make do without. The thing is, I know a lot of people who do need it. These are people I work with every day, a lot of whom have made games that are currently being sold in this very same store, as a matter of fact. And if I happened to move to Sweden, guess what? I’d get the Origin Store in Swedish, and at that point I’d be in real trouble, my Swedish being as hopelessly rusty as it is. I’d have to paste every single sentence to Google Translate or something.

Why, yes, that is undoubtedly the very best way to figure out exactly what it is you’re paying for. Nothing like agreeing to a machine-translated license agreement to make life a little more exciting.

It didn’t help things any that clearly I couldn’t even access the website he was trying to send me to, because my browser would always get hijacked to a Finnish page that wouldn’t even let me manage my Origin account, because that functionality just isn’t in the localized version — or if it is, it’s hidden very well. Which is, incidentally, a major reason why I tend to prefer the original English language versions, because in my experience, this kind of thing happens all the time.

This shouldn’t be a hard thing to fix — and I’m saying that knowing full well that in most instances, when somebody who doesn’t really know what they’re talking about says something isn’t hard to fix, it always involves degrees of complexity they are completely ignorant of. You got me there. Apologies. But you know what? Speaking as an avid gamer and longtime EA customer here, I don’t really even care how hard it is or isn’t, because this is a serious oversight and a prime example of a very sensible and entirely commendable policy (“we must try to offer our products and services to our customers in their native language”) that has been implemented in a haphazard and, frankly, somewhat ignorant manner. The whole purpose of that policy is to make products and services more accessible to as many of EA’s customers as possible. Now it’s accomplishing the exact opposite. What is intended to make customers’ lives easier is a barrier to entry.

Oh, and I’m still totally buying Mass Effect 3 (yes, yes, the ending, heap big rage, I don’t care). That should go without saying; this isn’t some kind of a protest or ultimatum. I’m just saying there’s something badly broken here and it should be fixed — and it’s not a bug, it’s the result of a design that probably follows policy to the letter, but doesn’t actually accommodate actual customers.

And, you know. This shit does work on Steam.



you will see joy in this sadness

Sat Mar-24th-2012 // Filed under: Games

I’m feeling absolutely overwhelmed.

I just completed Thatgamecompany’s Journey.

The game depicts a place of desolation and ruin where sands flow like water. You walk among the remains of a civilization that once was. That may sound post-apocalyptic, but it really isn’t. You walk through dead places and get glimpses of greatness and grandeur, hopelessly eroded by time, wind and sands.

It’s beautiful. If you’ve played Thatgamecompany’s previous game, the sublime Flower, you already have some idea of what that might entail, but Journey is a much more focused and intense experience and has more in the way of a story, although there’s no dialogue in the game. Thatgamecompany has always been interested in evoking emotions. To say that Journey succeeds in that is an understatement along the lines of “space is fairly large.”

Here’s the launch trailer for the game — you should see that before you read on.

So, you control a robed character. There’s a mountain in the horizon. That’s where you need to go. This is pretty much all you know in the beginning of the game. You go there because… well, there are reasons, but for the purposes of this post, it doesn’t matter. Because it’s there. Because it’s a pilgrimage. Because you have to.

The wind blows. The sands flow. You trek through the desolate landscape. High above you tower the remains of what might have been a bridge. The music in the game is beautiful. They know when to play it how to use it, and they know when to be quiet. The audioscape in Journey is a great achievement in itself.

Along the way, you find pieces of cloth that can give you, for a short while, the power of flight. Sometimes they are small scraps that fly around like flocks of birds. Some of them are growing up from the ground, like plants. Some of them form creatures, becoming huge flying whales. You have a scarf that proximity to these things powers up, and you can use that power to fly, until you run out of power and need to recharge it again.

Without that power, you walk, your feet sinking into the sand, often struggling against the wind and trying to make it to the top of a dune with obvious effort — or sliding downhill at exhilarating speeds, as if you were skiing.

There’s gameplay in there. It’s not complicated, but it’s fun.

The game looks absolutely beautiful. In an age where many games strive for photorealism and amazingly rich environments, Journey opts for a far simpler look, doing far more with color than is immediately obvious. The desert, for example, is red. There are many shades of red; details tend to be scarce. When there is something worth your notice, it immediately stands out, but even then, it’s more about broad and evocative shapes that are heavy with the weight of what could be centuries, even millennia.

At some points, you’ll feel as if you are underwater. Deep underground, beyond the merciless glare of the sun, you will walk through the darkness in what could be ancient tombs or the remains of magnificent courts, storage rooms or once-magnificent plazas. The air feels like it’s holding its breath. The scraps of cloth here are furtive, moving with apprehension. Horrible machines slumber here. Sometimes they wake up, hungry for what power you have. You can’t fight them. You’re just a traveler. All you’ve got is determination and hope, and — sometimes — a desperate burst of speed that gets you away from them. Maybe.

And then again, sometimes you’re sliding downhill in a carefree avalanche of sand, a pack of the cloth things racing you down; they’re skipping around, playful like dolphins in the surf, and the sun is setting and the world is beautiful, and you catch some air and soar above it for a while, only to land again in a spray of sand. You’re a part of a wave that’s sweeping through an ancient city, empty and worn-down monuments to things that have faded from living memory flicking past you as you dash down what might have once been some grand avenue, and for a while, there’s pure joy in everything. You’re fast, and you’re alive.

Throughout all this, sooner later, you’ll see somebody else moving in the landscape. Another traveler, just like you.

I’ve often said that I love multiplayer games, except for the other players. It’s mostly a joke, but not entirely; there’s that whole “being harassed by a homophobic, racist and misogynistic 13-year old” aspect to it that I don’t need to go into detail on.

I do, however, love playing online with my friends, especially if we can do something co-operative.

Journey doesn’t let you do that. If you’re online, it just inserts other people into your game — but just one person at a time. There are no crowds here, just chance encounters with other lonely travelers. You don’t know who they are. There’s no way for you to choose who you’re playing with.

You don’t have to do anything with them. They’re just there, playing the game, and it’s easy to ignore them — stay away from them, and soon they’re gone.

I ignored them, in the beginning. There was some initial interest at my first encounter — “hey, look, there’s somebody else” — but after we’d looked at each other for a while, we both just turned away and went off to do something else, and when I looked back, I was alone. That happened a few times.

And I thought, “I wish that was somebody I know, so I could talk about this with him.”

But there’s a section towards the end that’s hard — not challenging, really, but it’s emotionally draining. The sand is gone; in its place is just snow and merciless wind that tries to push you back. The light that powers you gets drained instantly; you can no longer fly. You have to make it through on foot.

And there was another traveler there. We were moving together, and we fell into a rhythm. Here, for the first time, I noticed that when I and my companion got close enough, we would charge each others’ power a little. It made progress a little easier. It felt like we were huddling together for warmth. There were gusts of wind that threatened to throw us off the mountain, and together we took shelter behind rocks, waiting for them to pass. The snow and the cold turned our red robes stiff and white, but when we were that close, there was a little light, a little warmth. I know that in terms of the game mechanics, it made no real difference. But it felt warm.

We climbed that mountain together. Before, I would have ignored him; now, if he fell behind, I turned to watch, to see if he was all right. If he moved faster than I did and I lost sight of him for a moment, I’d take a few more steps and see him standing there, looking at me.

You can’t talk in Journey. There’s no voice communication. But you can sound a little note, a kind of a chime that changes in pitch at random, and we used that. We found a cave with an altar in there, and as we activated it, it lit up and warmed us, even as the wind howled outside and snow piled up, and ancient mechanical horrors moved in the sky. We stood there and signaled to one another. I don’t know what it meant. “I’m glad you’re here with me,” more than anything else, I suppose. “I’m glad I’m sharing this with somebody.”

Now, I have no way of knowing if this was the same player throughout the entire experience. Especially towards the end, there’s a section where we got separated a few times, and I know the game could have pulled a switch on me then. But I don’t think it did. By then, we had an established rhythm, and I think it was the same player. I want it to be the same player.

And I realized that not knowing who it was made it better. That uncertainty shaped the experience. His decision to stay with me felt significant. I know a friend will stay with me. There would be no discovery. There wouldn’t be that shared sense of wonder.

As we were making the very final push after an exhilarating flight over the landscape, we were back on foot, walking towards what I knew had to be our final goal, he signaled to me once; I signaled back. He did it twice, I did it twice. Three times. There wasn’t much content there, but the significance felt overwhelming — we were confirming to each other than yes, we’re here, we made it. We made it together.

And then we stepped into the light.



dear esther

Sat Feb-25th-2012 // Filed under: Games

I have just completed Dear Esther. According to Steam, it took 95 minutes, and I very much doubt that I will ever play it again.

I heard about Dear Esther when it first came out as a Source engine mod, but I didn’t play it. I don’t know why; as I recall, I even downloaded it, but then I got sidetracked. The version now available on Steam is a standalone version of the original mod, and it’s undergone a complete overhaul.

I don’t want to spoil it, so I won’t say much about the content, although honestly, this seems like an experience that is not easily spoiled. Here are the basics: you’re on an island, and you explore it along a fairly linear path, and every once in a while a narrator pipes up. This is a fairly accurate description of the experience — as far as player actions go, I’m not really leaving anything out.

Some of the material seems to be internal monologue, other parts are fragments of letters to the eponymous Esther. Car crashes and drunk driving are referenced and alluded to on a regular basis, but there are also stories about some other characters. Some of the narrations are triggered at specific spots, but most of them pop up in random order, and I suspect that to hear all of them, you would have to play through the game several times. Sometimes it takes quite a while for something new to be triggered, but the writing by Dan Pinchbeck is consistently articulate and evocative. It’s a kind of a ghost story, really; it’s just that you’re the ghost, and the only person there to be haunted is the player. The narrator, Nigel Carrington, does a great job.

Besides the excellent narration, the audio design is solid, if not quite spectacular, but the soundtrack by Jessica Curry is beautiful and occasionally disturbing in all the right ways.

Graphically, it’s a treat. Re-designed completely since the original version by Robert Briscoe (whose previous work includes Mirror’s Edge, a game with a look that was essentially the complete opposite of this one, but still one of my favorites). I like the way Source games look in general, and the engine is used to great effect here.

I guess these are not the most advanced graphics you’ve ever seen, but the design is absolutely perfect; almost all of the game takes place in natural settings, and Dear Esther nails perfectly a certain kind of beautiful desolation you can find on certain islands that I absolutely love in real life. There are cave sections that are breathtakingly beautiful, and there’s a wealth of detail, much of which is either related to what we learn about the island or about the narrator’s personal situation, with a little bit of Biblical stuff thrown in for good measure.

At times, Dear Esther manages to evoke surprisingly powerful emotions — there’s something strangely heartbreaking about walking into a dilapidated house and finding pictures of an ultrasound scan scattered across the table. A sense of loss and melancholy, and occasionally rage, permeates the game. There’s something inevitable about the entire experience. The trailer gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of things the game does well:

There’s been debate about whether Dear Esther qualifies as a game — the only thing you can do is move around, really; there are no puzzles to solve, no things to do, certainly no combat.

That debate is remarkably uninteresting to me — to be brutally honest, I think people who feel the need either define Dear Esther in very specific terms, or people who feel their conception of games threatened by Dear Esther, may not be particularly used to dealing with art in general. That said, it could be argued (and has been argued) that there’s not enough to do in the game, that it’s not interactive enough, and that’s not an unreasonble point to make… but I think what the game does well is easily fascinacting enough to carry the experience.

In any case, it’s not a long game (95 minutes for me), and I think that’s its strength; it’s about the length of a movie, and it doesn’t last long enough to grow stale. I’m fairly sure there’d still be more content for me to experience, but as I said, I don’t think I’ll ever play this again. I enjoyed Dear Esther immensely, but I suspect that returning to it would just dilute it. My only real gripe with the game is that I experienced a bit of motion sickness playing it, which I believe is the first time I’ve ever experienced that with an FPS title, and hope won’t become a habit.

I think we’re really in the middle of a Renaissance of indie games that give us amazingly creative, stylish and innovative games that make a conscious attempt to push artistic and narrative boundaries in their own ways — Limbo and Bastion come to mind, and hell, Minecraft probably qualifies, too. Dear Esther definitely does, and I think everybody who’s interested in genuinely engaging attempts to do something new and cool should give it a try.



me and sgt. mcgee

Mon Oct-3rd-2011 // Filed under: Games

(I’ve been playing Fallout: New Vegas lately, a game that doesn’t seem to end, no matter how many damn hours I put into it. The following is the direct result of that. If you’re familiar with the sometimes weird behavior of non-player characters in video games, you may get more out of this than if you don’t. In any case, fair warning: this is me, geeking out.)

I’m a courier.

I had the package I was supposed to deliver stolen from me, they put two bullets in my head and left me in a shallow grave in the Mojave Wasteland. I didn’t die. Guess I’m just ornery like that. I got my payback, believe me, although that was just the beginning. But that’s another story, one I don’t even know the ending to yet. This one’s about Sergeant McGee.

Can’t say I know McGee very well. Seems like an okay guy; he’s serving in the New California Republic’s Army 5th Battalion, 1st Company. To be honest, he didn’t look like much when I first saw him. We talked a little when I was waiting on his boss, Lieutenant Hayes. McGee said he hadn’t been home for a while, he was serving his second tour of duty. I had things on my mind. I wasn’t paying a lot of attention.

Hayes had a problem with some escaped NCR prisoners in a town called Primm; they’d taken over and dug in pretty good, and Hayes didn’t have the manpower to do anything about it. They had themselves a stalemate, and the civilians were caught in the middle. Hayes was waiting on reinforcements he knew weren’t coming, so he just barricaded them in, sprinkled on a light coat of landmines to discourage anyone from sneaking out, and settled down to wait.

It seemed like the usual bullshit to me — if Primm had a little more strategic importance, or if there was a little bit of glory in it, the kind of action that can earn you a couple of medals, or if the enemy in there had been a serious threat, they would’ve done something about it. But the people in Primm weren’t even NCR citizens. They just didn’t rate in the NCR’s eyes. It was easier to sit tight and starve the enemy out. And if the convicts decided to extend their life by resorting to alternate cuisine, well — like I said, Primm wasn’t an NCR territory. Everybody’s got their own problems.

It didn’t sit right with me.

(more…)


 


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