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PotHeel Blog

In Defence of....Obsidian

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Obsidian. The name conjures up a variety of images, some negative, some positive. One image is that of the safe pair of hands, the developer who can be handed the reins of any major license and produce a work that rivals or even exceeds the original effort. On the other hand there is the somewhat more popular image, that of well-wishers who haven't heard of bug-testing.

It is interesting now to look back at the evolution of Obsidian, given that they are now arguably at the strongest point in their history. With Project Eternity an unequivocal success and the reported possibility of a new Star Wars game helmed by them along with a promising South Park game, it is safe to say that their future is secure for the time being. In the past, this was often not the case.

The company rose from the ashes of the once famous Black Isle studios who, under Chris Avellone and Feargus Urquhart, developed some fine RPGs, notably the Fallout series. Obsidian quickly became the studio that developers trusted with their D&D inspired licenses, in particular Bioware. Obsidian were given charge of KOTORII and Neverwinter Nights 2 while Bioware focused on Jade Empire, Mass Effect and Dragon Age. In each instance Obsidian delivered a thematically brilliant and nuamced plot packed with interesting characters and entertaining dialogue, even if the core gameplay was only as strong as that of the preceding game, and often more buggy.

After two expansions for Neverwinter Nights 2, they developed Fallout: New Vegas, Alpha Protocol and Dungeon Siege III. Obsidian have remained a remarkably busy studio since their inception, however has this impacted the quality of each individual game release? Bugs are representative of a lack of playtesting, which takes time. It may be the case the Obsidian, pressured by various publishers, have not given each individual project the necessary care. Either that or it may be due to the discrepancies of their particular development style, the focus on story and character may be at the detriment of gameplay.

KOTOR II is probably the best representation of what Obsidian is and what they can achieve. When the game was released back in 2005, it was a critical and commercial success. The plot introduced a number of new characters and showed us a Star Wars universe more layered than any we had seen before. I was among those who purchased the game on day one, having been a fan of the previous iteration in the series. I was impressed by it, however something didnt feel right. First and foremost, the bugs were unbelievably bad. At the time I wasnt yet acquainted with the dark side of PC gaming, so KOTOR II was a baptism by fire. It took me five years and the Lost Content mod to complete the game, understandably my feelings for the game waxed and waned during this period. It is a testament to the quality of the underlying product (and my insanity) that I persevered and found something to love.

Whether a result of a rushed development period or wrongly assigned priorities, KOTOR 2 is riddled with bugs. It is only with effort that this game can be truly appreciated. Earlier I mentioned the Lost Content mod, if you are a fan of this game it is well worth checking out. When this game was released a great deal of content was cut to meet deadlines. LucasArts were notoriously dickish, they certainly trod all over Obsidian. The Lost Content mod is a fan project designed to restore all the lost content, surprisingly. The mod brings back a number of cutscenes, fixes the ending and even adds a new planet among other things. It is accomplished and gives KOTOR 2 a layer of polish that it sorely needed.

The story of KOTOR 2 is the story of Obsidian: great expectations, organisational shortcomings, publisher bullying and buggy releases. Despite this all, Obsidian have flourished. With their games they have established themselves as firm fan favourites, whether they can maintain this good favour is yet to be seen. Their Project Eternity on kickstarter raised a great deal of money. It has given them the opportunity to make the game that they always wanted to make without the pressure of a publisher breathing down their neck. If the game is still ridiculously buggy upon release, will they still be as adored?

Regardless, their future is bright and it they should never be written off, they are a strong development house who have made some of the most original and downright fun games of the last ten years, for that they should be appropriately commended.

Violence! War! Death! Exclamations!

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So it's been a while since the Sandy Hook shootings. The customary things have happened, national outrage has been expressed, sympathy has been offered to the victims and a suitable scapegoat has been selected by the political community to avoid any real notion of change.

Let's just dive in, shall we?

The U.S.A is a special country. Large, wielding large amounts of both soft and hard power, they exert a large influence on the world. Despite this power, it seems that there is nothing more that some Americans fear than America itself. This fear is understandable (to an infinitesimal degree) as the U.S.A was born in revolution. The "founding fathers" created a constitution that is revered by many (despite a staggering number of niggles and inconsistencies), enshrined in which is the right to bear arms.

Back in the days when democracy was a privilege, invasion was just around the corner and autocracy was the norm, it is understandable that one might want to arm the populace. Look at the success that the Spanish populace achieved against Napoleon through guerilla warfare as an example of what normal civilians could achieve in the fight against an invasion force. While interesting, that was then, this is now. There is not a single country on the planet that could match the U.S.A for armed might. In 2013, it is surprising that owning a firearm is not unusual in the slightest in the USA.

An inevitable by-product of allowing the populace to be armed is the exposure of nutters to assualt rifles. Colombine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook. These names are all culturally significant, bitterly short obituaries to the many victims of each incident. They are only three from many. In the modern world, the USA stands out through its abnormally high homicide rate, since 1960, more Americans have died as a result of armed homicide than in every US war ever.

How is this dealt with? At each shooting there is sadness, despair and hand-wringing. Politicians, in particular the NRA lobby, will seek to blame anything but the gun. Which brings me to my point: the Sandy Hook killings have occurred, so what is to blame? Videogames apparently.

The NRA, in their loopy never-ending quest to defend the xenophobic and ridiculously armed, have laid the blame for the shootings square at the feet of the videogame lobby. Their argument is this: while guns may kill people, it is people who pull the trigger. This is undeniably true, the gun doesnt choose what it is used for after all. However what inspires the desire to pull the trigger in the first place?

Games are currently being blamed. Before that it was movies, before that, music. As successive generations of children become parents outraged at the difference of the new to the old, they will blame whatever they do not understand. It has now effectively been proven that violent videogames do not inspire violent behaviour in young children, indeed they can lower it, as they provide a valid outlet for anger. Violence has always occurred, wars and murder occurred in the past with the same worrying frequency that they do in the present. Whatever inspires the human mind to commit mindless atrocities is buried somewhere in the subconscious, it is slightly insulting to the intelligence to claim that murder is specifically the result of one particular medium of entertainment.

The issue therefore comes around again. If murder is a fact of life, shouldnt the issue be the weapons that the individual is allowed to wield? A madman may murder two, maybe three with a knife, but with an assault carbine he can kill dozens and maim hundreds, case in point the recent Norwegian shootings.

Ultimately, I'm not trying to pass judgement. If someone can own a firearm responsibly and defend themselves with said gun, then wonderful for them. However, a society that allows the mentally disturbed and criminal incredibly easy access to overwhelmingly deadly force should take a long look at itself. Something needs to be done, people either need to get up or shut up.

In Defence of...Peter Molyneux

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Peter Molyneux. The man's name alone provkes a flurry of responses, some positive, most negative. He is criticised as a liar, a charlatan, a purveyor of snake oil. Is he really any of these things? Lets take a look at the facts.

Populous, Syndicate, Theme Park, Dungeon Keepers 1 & 2, Theme Hospital, Black and White 1&2, Fables 1, 2 & 3 and The Movies. These are all well-respected and well loved games that have exhibited excellent production values, immersive design and engaging gameplay, all the while maintaining an experimental approach. From any other developer this record would ensure a hallowed image and rapturous attention wherever he travelled. In Molyneux's case this seems to count for naught in the eyes of many.

Look at the reaction to his recent kickstarter campaign for new gameGodus. The sum requested, £450,000, was barely met in time, a stark contrast to the mountains of money thrown at point and click nostalgia merchant Tim Schafer when he made a similar request. Many criticised it as a vanity project, some expressed surprise that he didn't simply sell one of his many mansions to fund the project. Most ignored him.

To merit such a reaction, what is his crime? Hyperbole. Molyneux is in posession of a childlike enthusiasm, this can cause him to promise things that he cannot deliver,Fablebeing the most notorious example. Whether Molyneux is the devil incarnate or not, the reaction to his failed promises portrays modern gamers in an interesting light.

2012 was a interesting year for many, especially for Bioware, who felt compelled to alter the ending of their superior space shooter seriesMass Effect. The reason for such a move? Fan indignance over the lack of blue babies. Bioware were relentlessly hounded by many, to the extent that they were willing to sell their artistic vision short. These same fans now refuse to support Molyneux on the grounds that he failed to deliver what he promised. Are gamers now spoiled children? Unfortunately the evidence seems to point to that being the case. The industry is at a point where it is poised to mature, however their are a certain number of individuals who are determined to resist this no matter the cost seemingly.

Mass Effect, regardless of the ending, was a superlative series which delivered countless hours of enjoyment to millions.TheFableseries did the same, each adventure was well crafted and thoroughly enjoyable, an excellent example of game design. Gamers are in danger of becoming Kathy Bates, torturing artists for not complying with their own collective interpretation of excellence. If the industry is to be allowed to mature, artists must feel as though they can sell their visions to a receptive audience.

If a man like Peter Molyneux cannot be given a second chance, if gamers cannot accept excellence in place of perfection, then what hope does the artistic sector of our industry have? Publishers sell sequels every year because they are safe in the knowledge that they will sell, they stifle creatvity, for this the fans are partly to blame. If artists are forced to comply with what the publisher thinks the audience wants, then where will new IPs come from? The publishers have watched the reactions of disgruntled gamers with fear, independent projects face a more difficult time now than ever before.

Hopefully we can collectively learn to act with a little more maturity, then perhaps the burst of independent projects that so many seem to desire can come about.

A wee bit of insight...

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So, over the last few days, the 1reasonwhy story has left quite a wake. On both sides of the spectrum, vitriolic words spew back and forth, feminism is equivalent to socialism/facism/nazism/satanism, men are moronic knuckle-draggers...the list goes on. That a few words on a hitherto mostly unexplored topic could cause such virtual anger is, to me, utterly fascinating. So let's explore the topic a little.

First things first, lets look at the 'instigators'. As some would have you believe it, a number of ultra-radical feminist individuals posted a number of tweets designed explicitly to bring about the downfall of western society, in particular the games industry. With malicious intent, they desired to knife men everywhere in the heart, instead of making them that all important sammich. Rather, a number of women involved in the gaming industry came forward and gave their first hand accounts of sexism in the gaming industry. Now, what is interesting is that a large number of those who effectively mooed 'nuh-uh' did so merely because they personally did not see it happen. I have never seen an elephant being born, yet I know they are the result of a live birth, they do not come from an egg or the earth. As such simply because I have not seen sexism in practice in the gaming industry or online does not mean that instances of it do not exist. There are millions of unique experiences that occur all the time, not all of them are positive. To simply deride because you do not agree does not achieve anything.

These women, and the women who play games do not represent a minority of the gaming community as a whole. Yet among console and pc gamers, they ultimately do. Does this disqualify them from a view? Some may be sanctimonious, some may be preachy and offensive, however they are still gamers. The issue is sexism as a whole, not just sexism in the gaming industry. While it may be bad, it is by no means unique, to single out one sector without a coherent strategy is both nonsensical and counter-productive. There can be no true advancement in the arguement until it is accepted that this situation is by no means unique.

On the flip side, there are the male gamers. We are sometimes stereotypes (most recently on feedbackula) as knuckle-dragging neanderthals with a single digit IQ and an inability to play games two-handed, is this the case? Must we be so horribly dehumanised? I'm sure the vast number of male gamers are reasonable individuals, must we be lumped in with the nutcases? That some insult is not the first sign of the apocalypse, thank you very much 'Johnny'. We, as men, are dealt with in a crude manner that is not becoming.

This is what is ultimately lacking from the argument overall. Where is the love? Tens of thousands of comments on dozens of articles, each spewing filth about the other side, each comprehensively 'right'. Perhaps the time is right for change, we need new consoles, a healthier ecosystem, balance between each disparate group of gamers. These are things that are all achievable. Society needs to treat some members a little better, but not at the expense of others. That is it however, 1reasonwhy is a small part of a bigger picture, that cannot be forgotten. So let's look at this objecitvely, equality, not superiority. This is fair, is it not?

Carpe Diem et Venatus!

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What makes me a gamer?

I suppose I could attempt to answer this in a number of different ways, I could compare myself to others and I could cite history and societal trends. If I did that though, then there could be no chance of me finding a personally satisfying conclusion.

I could blame society. When I was but a little kiddy, I was taken to my father's work. He had Day of the Tentacle installed on his work PC, along with Star Wars: Dark Forces. I can't pretend that I understood exactly what I was doing on Day of the Tentacle, I was only four years old and as such my attention span was a little limited. I still remember sitting on his massive leather chair, while he and his friends chatted in the corner, and entering the world of Luke Skywalker. The chance to blast Stormtroopers with a laser pistol was something new to me, and certainly put my childish and incoherent world of make-believe to shame. Videogames, despite the pixellation and limited interaction, offered a clarity of vision and pure fun. They were just so cool. I remember entering cheat codes on Dark Forces for the first time, the sense of power that came is something that Ill never forget, and the kudos that it brought me with my friends cannot be overstated.

As the years went by, games were increasingly something that my friends played. I owned a Sega Mega Drive, I played Sonic the Hedgehog constantly, I went from lobbing grenades at Gammoreans to spinning the living daylights out of Dr Robotnik. I loved both games, owning Sonic and then Streets of Rage meant that I could play with my friends, and eventually my younger brother. Then came the Sega Saturn, and then the Playstation. I was never interested in Action Men or any of those other toys, save perhaps Lego. Videogames were the height of cool.

By this point I was around eight years old. My library of games expanded considerably, I played Tekken 2 and 3, Gran Turismo, Crash Bandicoot 3, Spyro the Dragon, the list went on. Either by myself or with friends, it was increasingly how I chose to spend my time, sometimes to the detriment of my health and appearance. As birthdays and Christmases went by, so my collection increased. I would travel to my best friend's house, he had a Nintendo 64, we'd play Mario 64 when his parents were there, then sneak his dads copy of Goldeneye from the high drawer and giggle as we shot each other to pieces as obese midget Koreans. Another friend had a good PC, he introduced me to Age of Empires, I was enthralled. I look back at this time and I dont see it as a childhood wasted, I spent plenty of time outdoors, gaming was a healthy part of my social life and development, I wasn't good at sport and this was something I could enjoy despite my less than stellar hand-to-eye coordination. I also now recognise the potential that videogames have to warp the development of children, much the same as too much of any good thing having negative effects. I could have played less, but I'm fine now, mostly.

Then came the Gameboys and Pokemon, suddenly having those oversized calculators was the most important thing in the world, and battling oddly shaped monstrosities against each other became the only thing I cared about. My devotion was religious, as it was for all the other children in my class. Kids traded the cards and chatted about their progress in the game, it had the power to unite and was an inherently social thing. However, some stole cards, other kids got in fights over them. The adults didnt understand, perhaps if they did then so many schools wouldn't have banned the damn things.

Then came the PS2, and Grand Theft Auto 3. Games suddenly went into unknown territory, I adapted to the violence of the game with frightening speed, my parents were none the wiser. My friends and I had been indulging in virtual slaughter for years, I was as adept at dropping men with a single shot at 300 yards as I was at stomping Koopas to death. Again, the parents either over-reacted or didn't care at all. It was just what the kids did.

It was after this that high school came, and with it the apathy and stigma of the teenage years. Suddenly gaming went from being something that everyone did and became the occupation of a subset. It also became something that boys exclusively did. I was a flake and didn't want to be associated with that particular group, so I disowned my consoles and played my PC in secret.

Society introduced me to games, encouraged my addiction and then took them away from me.

I didn't just game because it was something my friends did. I gamed because it meant something very personal to me. I played Age of Empires, later I played Civilisation, eventually I played any strategy game I could get my hands on. I loved the sense of control, the power that came from ordering large groups of tiny men to attack differently coloured large groups of tiny men. This is something that cannot be overlooked, when you are an outcast of sorts it is very tempting to roleplay, I just chose to be a god.

Mostly I loved the history. I can honestly say that it was my childhood love of Age of Empires that inspired my general love of history and eventually led to me taking my undergraduate degree in history. They taught me a passion that my teachers could never instil, despite their best efforts. Games have an ability to engage that other kinds of interaction do not.

Throughout my teenage years, I played my PC, the consoles gathered dust except for the occasional bout of Timesplitters on local multiplayer with my brother.

My brother is dyspraxic, he has poor dexterity in his wrists, making writing difficult among other things. He is also six years younger than I am. We shared a room for a considerable period of time during our childhoods, and I can honestly say that it was gaming that allowed me to bond with him. We're very different people, we have totally opposing interests, and given that for a large period of his life he has been physically smaller than myself, we couldn't play sports on an equal level. What we could do however, is pick up two separate controllers and play the same game. This created myriad shared experiences that laid the groundwork for the relationship that we have today.

I'd play when I was alone, I'd play when I felt down. Given my library and knowledge of the medium, I had a game to suit any situation, any mood. I had a number of other hobbies and a healthy social life, I loved to write and play basketball, I read constantly and spent a good deal of time hanging about with my friends. The one constant though was my love for videogames, I'd never stop coming back, even as I grew older and my interests changed.

I can't blame society for my love of videogames, I can't cite it as the reason that I am a gamer. I can't bring examples of social history or quote statistics, nor can I compare myself to others. My experience was original amongst millions of other original experiences. I game to relax, I game to cope, I game to socialise, I game to escape, I game for adventure, I game for control, I game because I always have done and I game because I am.

For me, the interaction of the medium, its ability to unite, inspire and drive the nature of entertainment into strange new realms is what lends it worth. In a world where all current forms of entertainment have remained essentially unchanged for a century, gaming is the means by which we will carve something new and exciting for ourselves.

Despite whether it made me irritable, gave me occasional anti-social tendencies or caused me to harbour the odd sociopathic sentiment, gaming made me who I am, and for that I am eternally grateful. I am who I am because I game, and that will never change.

Do we need to press the refresh button?

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Let me just come right out and say it: this generation of consoles is at the end of it's life. There's nothing left to give, the consoles themselves are running outdated technology and sales will only decline from this point on.

Why is this? Time of course! It has traditionally been the case that consoles would be renewed after a period of around five years, at the moment it has been seven years since the release of the Xbox 360, where are our new toys? Now, don't get me wrong, there is life in the current generation yet, regardless of how flaccid it may be. Let us not forget that in the final days of the PS2 came God of War 2 and Okami, both excellent games. It is at the end of a console's life that developers have often figured out the best tricks to bring life into their works, this is most noticeable in the 360. Games such as Mass Effect come in multiple DVDs, harking back to the early noughties PC gaming scene and it's multiple CD phase. Developers are hampered by the memory restrictions of the current generation, the current situation represents tha maximum of what can be achieved with the current hardware restrictions.

PC developers back in the day adopted the DVD as a distribution medium, then digital downloads. As technology advanced, so did developers, as having access to more powerful tools allowed them to express themselves more fully. Now, do you see a parallel? It can be argued that in order to truly innovate, the next generation of consoles needs to expand upon traditional input methods and offer greater internet connectivity as well as offering greater power. Indeed, much as most people bought the PS2 because it had a DVD player built in, current gen consoles are often bought to work as media centres. However, it cannot be ignored that, if given access to more powerful processors and tech, developers would be able to innovate on a greater scale. Simply providing new input methods does not guarentee society-wide artistic momentum.

Unreal 3 is a great engine, however it is old, much like the 360, PS3 and what have you. We need some fresh air to allow the medium to expand in interesting new directions. The swansong of the current gen is fast approaching, with titles such as GTA V on the horizon, things certainly look rosy. The current state of affairs cannot continue for much longer.

Cloud gaming, greater connectivity, different controllers...these are all things that excite me. I don't want my children to be playing the same Xbox as me 20 years from now. The future, as evidenced by platforms such as Steam, has much to offer.

The open source movement perhaps offers the greatest window of opportunity for the gaming scene. Take for instance the Ouya, $99 when it comes out. Android powered, customisable, funded by the consumer and accessible. Is there anything brighter than a future where anyone can make a game? An in-console app store? This may sound like anathema to some, but greater access brings greater opportunity, and the customer always has the final say over their own purchase. Did Steam Greenlight cause any issues for the PC gaming scene? Has Kickstarter made any significant issues appear? Has mobile gaming killed traditional gaming? No, because the element of choice is involved, along with greater involvement. Computing for the people is a step closer, the stranglehold of EA and Activision is detrimental to the health of the industry. Where is the innovation? They release iterations of the same games year after year to increased profits, yet as we see the total number of games being sold worldwide is decreasing.

Putting power directly in the hands of the developers and the people is the best solution to solving this stranglehold. The gaming market just now is much the same as the mobile market before the introduction of the iphone, stale focussed on incremental upgrades and dedicated entirely to the publisher. Think of how that market changed, then be as excited as I am for what the near future has to offer. If a new generation of consoles is released along these lines, offering greater support for indie developers and allowing greater community involvement, then great, but what we really need is something like the Ouya to succeed and bring competition back to a broken game of monopoly that is slowly killing all involved.

War in Games, Shooting Modern

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WARGAMES

Ever since the beginning of the medium, war has been a core facet of the gaming experience. Battlegrounds and methods of combat have changed, nowadays we have the likes of Battlefield 3 whereas back in the days of yore Pac-Man battled ghosts in a darkened room while attempting commit genocide upon the luminescent pill race. What we define as combat in games has changed, what began as vanquishing squares has become a realistic glorified slaughter.

Ghosts; defending their unborn children?

Does this quest for realism cheapen the whole experience? Modern-shooters will never achieve true realism, that would be counter-inuitive. They instead seek to recreate the thrill of an action film within the context of a warzone. What does this mean for gameplay? Simplified mechanics, cheap thrills and a strong competitive element, in other words, zero innovation. Where can there be creativity beyond new character models and ever more accurate ballistic models? Sure, we can switch between wars, in 2002 we were inundated with WW2 titles, now we have Afghanistan/Iraq simulations and the new Call of Duty title promises to take us into a future conflict. The shooter market has run into the same problem as the sports market, how does one innovate year on year with a product that is essentially the same and still deliver profits? As for realism, we can only speculate as to what the REAL soldiers think as opposed to the armchair trigger-junkies.

Are they living a real soldier's experience?

Do they find this all a little disrespectful? It is common knowledge that a large number of casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts have been caused by IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). How does this mirror the gaming experience? Men popping out of doorways in a complicated shooting range doesn't seem to be the norm for most soldiers in the field. Do men and women who have lost companions in this war find it disrespectful that in a game one can recover health merely by crouching behind a doorway? To be honest, it is most likely that they simply do not care, after all children play soldier everyday and no one finds a reason to call that an act of mockery. There is one important factor yet to consider, that is that frequent exposure to gore does indeed desensitise young impressionable minds and fuels concern that these games are merely recruitment machines for military. Do these games go too far in their depictions of violence? Or is it ok for games to push the boundaries of taste in this regard?

It is easy to focus on the negative side of the war-gaming scene, after all the effects are well documented. There is still on important fact to consider however, while this may be the dominant scene in gaming at the moment, things can and will change. These games bring genuine enjoyment to a large number of people, and fund an industry that is growing ever bigger and occasionally struggling. While the publishers may strong arm development studios, this isn't isolated to the shooter genre. We should recognise that the core of the gaming experience is to deliver "fun", and for the moment, shooting games are "it" and "fun".

It is just this that represents the ultimate problem for most. More than any other genre, the shooter embodies the instant thrill culture that has gripped gaming in recent years. Does this mean that the gaming medium as a whole can ever really evolve? Gamers defend their hobby and wish for it to be recognised as art, yet is there a game which deals with the issue of sex in a mature manner? Can there be a realistic depiction of a multi-gender warzone? Does the ever more realistic violence have a purpose other than to attract ever greater hordes of gore junkies? Does the shooter genre exist for any other reason than to exploit the hormones of misguided teenage boys? Can games ever deal with war in a mature, focused and eloquent fashion while innovating and still remain entertaining?

These things are all uncertain, indeed only time will tell. Maybe it will be soon that gamers learn to play something other than soldier.

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Videogames: The Evolution of the Medium

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Across the years, in narrative terms particularly, the video game genre has progressed in leaps and bounds. There was a time when the videogame had no need for professional writers to pad out their works with attempts at genuine art; story existed only to validate and explain game play- whereas now we have the likes of Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Knights of the Old Republic. What is particularly notable about this change is that, most of the games which have made a difference in terms of narrative come from one company: Bioware. Bioware are the most inquisitive and most explorative of all video game companies when it comes to the story stakes. But what lies behind their successes? And what is the cause of their shortcomings?

The innovation began with one very important game: Baldurs Gate, the first significant game that Bioware produced; in this game they sowed the seeds of their greatest successes and failures in narrative terms. Baldurs Gate was set in the same world as Dungeons And Dragons so the writing team did not need to create a world, they only needed to create a compelling story within it. What is notable in terms of narrative is that something, which became a staple of the video game genre in later years, was proliferated in this virgin effort: the player character is silent.

It is said that the silent player character helps strengthen player involvement, with the narrative unfolding as it allows the player to inhabit their characters shoes more easily. Having a voice actor removes individuality from the experience, no longer can the player simply imagine the voice in his/her head to go with the character. However, the involvement of the voice actor provides immersion and ultimately far greater accessibility. The essential problem with having a mute telepath as a main character ties in with the problem that defines the first-person viewpoint. Being essentially a floating telepathic gun/axe removes the feeling that the character has any impact on the world. Your character is created to deal with a global threat; that is all they exist to do. Conversations do not range beyond exposition and the player cannot put down roots in the world.

Various other games have taken this path, Half Life 1 and 2, Portal, All of the Elder Scrolls games, all of the Halo games and the first Dead Space immediately spring to mind. While its certainly debatable whether this is something positive, the silent PC (player character) is a trope that Bioware would continue throughout their games; otherwise they make no innovations from a narrative point of view.

For years they have made games that have the same overall storyline but with different gameplay techniques. Ever since KOTOR they have featured plots which progress as such: 1) Start in chaos, caused by faceless, unknown enemies who appear in great numbers. 2) Learn that these faceless goons are the minions of some maniacal Sith Lord/Machiavellian Emperor/Dragon/Techno-Organic race of unstoppable genocide-bringing spaceships. 3) Learn that the PC is the only person with the ability and drive to stop said threat and assemble a team of specialists. 4) Beat the end boss and save the world.

Bioware has made attempts to innovate recently, to uneven effect, in Dragon Age II and Mass Effect, providing alternate endings based on player activity and decisions, and its success is debatable; this is essentially the problem with Bioware at the moment. Right now it is working on sequels, nothing new, so we just have Dragon Age, KOTOR and Mass Effect sequels to expect. They are re-treading past glories and are profiting hugely, but now that the company is middle aged, it is resting on its laurels and failing to innovate, particularly in the field of storytelling. It is unfortunate, but unless serious innovation takes place at least in the next decade, the RPG as a genre is going to be left stuck in a rut. Fortunately, there are several smaller companies out there who are trying to do something new.

CD Projekt has released The Witcher 2 which is a riot, and possesses a very mature storyline, and Team Bondi has produced LA Noire, which allows player investigation among other things. They are trying something new, which is admirable, but they have failed to recognise a key problem which is coming to the fore more and more often now: the battle of gameplay vs. narrative. Is the narrative simply a backdrop to explain the characters powers such as in Bionic Commando? Or is the gameplay simply something to drive the narrative forwards, such as in Heavy Rain and American McGees Alice? This is a problem which has not been solved; however some very small companies are producing some very interesting workarounds.

There is a series of games, produced by Taleworlds and published by Paradox Interactive, based in Sweden, called Mount and Blade. These games are medieval simulations; they create the most realistic interpretations of medieval combat that their budget will allow, and they release their product into the world. The player can be anything they want, but they have to work to earn it as the world continues on fine without the players presence. The predominance of player narrative means that the storylines that one can craft are limited only by the tools provided. As the team expand the world, more options become available and the storylines become more varied. Moreover, they provide (as is common with PC games) the development tools used for the games to the community, to allow the community to produce modifications (mods) which enhance the gameplay or change the game entirely. This level of player interaction means that the story is completely fresh and unique each time, although quality cannot be guaranteed.

Games in this vein, those which are obsessed with player interaction, have existed for some time and have proven very popular, whether they are The Sims, Dwarf Fortress or Minecraft. The problem is that their very nature prompts the question, is a game an experience, or a journey? Is a game like a film, taking you on a voyage through someone elses vision? Or is it a set of tools, a sandbox, in which you can create your own vision?

As for the future of the evolution of narrative in digital media, it is uncertain. No major players seem willing to innovate and certainly no one is taking notice of smaller teams. In this troubled financial climate where marketing men have overbearing influence as opposed to the developers, who would dare to innovate? Conservatism abounds, but the medium is in dire threat of growing stale. Videogames are the most exciting and unique of all forms of entertainment, but if they are to continue their ascendance, then changes need to be made.

Until then, we can be safe in the knowledge that at least there are some who have the courage to go forwards.