Monday, 21 January 2013

Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines and Morality

A couple months ago I talked a bit about morality and player choice. Specifically I discussed how most games with morality systems just don't do them very well. Most systems are very binary, offering no real interesting choices. Should you save the baby from traffic, or kick it into a car? Typically it's not even a moral choice, so much as "have you played as good or evil so far?" Since such systems typically reward reaching a certain level of good or bad karma, acting against your previous decisions is detrimental to you. Morality may as well be reduced to a single question at the start of the game. With all that aside though, I've been playing Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines recently, which is an excellent example of morality done right. Allow me to explain:

The first aspect of Bloodlines that makes it's morality work is simply the game's narrative as well as how it effects player perception. In most games you are playing as a human in a world with human morals. What constitutes a good or bad deed is pretty much identical across every game. Bloodlines is different. In Bloodlines you play as a vampire living in human society. A predator living among his prey, so to speak. While you live among the humans, you are held to a vampire's set of rules. Primary among them is the concept of "The Masquerade". Essentially, vampires must strive to keep their presence/identity hidden. If humans remain ignorant to the vampires among them, vampire life is easier. Because this is the way the world of Bloodlines is portrayed, it's not considered such an "evil" thing to say, off a human if they found out you were a vampire.

Which leads us into the gameplay side of things. As a vampire, you can choose to breach the Masquerade if you feel the benefits outweigh the cost. Doing so is to your detriment however, in fact doing so 5 times results in a game over. Which brings us to the topic of humanity. Humanity is the closes Bloodlines has to a traditional morality system. Essentially the player has a certain number of humanity points representing how much control they have over "the beast" inside them. Your traditional good deeds increase humanity, whereas evil deeds reduce it. The difference in Bloodlines is in how humanity interacts with the rest of the gameplay, as well as with the Masquerade. 

For one thing, there is no reward for reaching a large amount of humanity. Instead, humanity is more of a measure of how many evil deeds you can commit before going feral. At 0 humanity you temporarily lose control of your character, but gain a large stat boost. Going feral in front of humans (that is, humans who aren't soon to be dead) is a breach of the Masquerade, but aside from that and the loss of control, there isn't much else that happens. In fact, it's possible to build a vampire specifically designed to go feral to exploit the stat boosts. The game is littered with opportunities for self gain that come at the cost of humanity, and it's up to the player to choose how much they want to go down that path. Some such opportunities can even redeem Masquerade breeches. Maybe you killed an innocent, but they were causing a scene, therefore you strengthened the Masquerade. It's an interesting give and take.

The result of all of this, is a game that differs greatly from what we have come to know as the "traditional" binary morality system. Making choices in Bloodlines is always interesting. Your morality isn't directly measured, and your not trying to sprint to one side or another of a single sliding scale. There is no unlocking of SUPER ULTRA GOOD GUY POWERS. Each situation has to be considered based on the situation alone, and decisions often come with a certain level of risk/reward. If anything it's more a practice in min/maxing your opportunities, doing good deeds when you can to pump up your humanity so that you can later dump it doing evil things for personal reward. If nothing else, it's really interesting to have all of this in a world that really feels like you are following vampire ethics, rather than just human ethics in space/fantasy/whatever. All this, from a game released in 2004.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Assassin's Creed Brotherhood and Player Restriction

Assassin's Creed has been one of those series that I really enjoy, but not enough to buy at full price. I'm perfectly content to wait for the games to come down in price, and as such I'm a little behind the times. So over the holidays I decided I should start playing Assassin's Creed Brotherhood. So far I'm quite enjoying the game, more than I enjoyed Assassin's Creed II almost 2 years ago. However I can't help but notice some very glaring issues that cause me great frustration, and so I thought I would talk a bit about those issues here today. Specifically they all seem to revolve around the concept of restricting the player. In itself player restriction isn't necessarily an issue, but the way the game does so makes it one.

Before I begin in earnest, there are a couple of things that I want to point out. First of all, I can't claim that any of the things I will discuss today were not present in Assassin's Creed II. It was a while ago that I played it, and I payed less attention to design back then. It's not a matter that even really matters. "It was that way in the last game, too" doesn't invalidate an issue. On a similar note, I am going to be comparing Brotherhood to "other games" a lot in this post. To that end I just want to emphasize that a design decision is not correct simply because another game (particularly a successful one) does it. I reference other games because they made what I consider to be a better decision when faced with a similar problem.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's look at the first and probably biggest issue Brotherhood has. It restricts where the player can go. As I stated earlier, restricting the player isn't a big problem. Assassin's Creed is an open world game, and plenty of open world games restrict where the player can go, usually until some later point in the story. It's all a matter of perception on the player's part. Most the games have the sense to make these restrictions logical. Perhaps a bridge is up, or a barricade is in the way, or perhaps the player needs some form of upgrade to get there. There is a good reason you can't go there, it makes sense, and often times finally getting access to that area incorporates some amount of story or gameplay. Perhaps even more importantly, the player is usually never given the impression that they can get there. There won't be any icons on the map of that area, there won't be any temptation to get there other than pure curiosity. Finally when there is a restricted area, the division is pretty clear. The restricted area is usually a city, or an island, connected by bridge or some other such.

Assassin's Creed Brotherhood does all of these things wrong. The player is not given any indication which areas they cannot go to until they are practically inside the area. At that point a large semi-transparent white wall appears. This isn't even a solid wall mind, you can walk right past it, you just die if you do. Who thought that was a good idea? The worst part is that it just feels like a very arbitrary division. The game explains that this area isn't available yet, and it makes sense in the game's plot, but it feels like a flimsy excuse. When you are standing there you see an area that is just outside your reach. You see NPCs walking in and out of it. You see icons on your map tempting you into this dead zone. Even despite the game's explanation of why you can't go in there, it doesn't make sense to your brain. This is clearly an area that should not be restricted, and yet the developers have decided that you cannot go there yet. Clearly the answer is to erect a giant invisible (but not impassable) wall all the way around this area! Yea, clearly the best idea is to put magical walls right where the player is not going to expect them, rather than at a logical division spot like a bridge or an actual wall.

Let me give you a specific example from my own experience with the game. I have this obsession with hitting up viewpoints. Viewpoints uncover more of the game map and allow you to see other icons, marking your other objectives. All the viewpoints are marked on the map from the very start. There is one in particular that I wanted to hit up in the north east of the map. However for about half the game it is just outside of your reach. You can run right up to it. You can see the tower, you just can't go there. So I would frequently check this area after completing story objectives to see if I could go there yet. Gradually the surrounding area became more available, but not the area I actually cared about. At one point I was even given a story mission that took place further to the east, past this inaccessible area. I thought surely this meant I could now use the viewpoint I had been waiting for. Not so much, though. No, instead the game made me run all the way around this area. I had to follow the taunting white wall all the way to the south and around it. I know now that, it's not even like the tower I wanted to climb was related to a story mission. For whatever reason the developers just decided they should taunt me with this tower, put it directly in my path, but not allow me to use it.

Area accessibility isn't even the game's only issue, in terms of restriction. See, the whole plot of Assassin's Creed is about reliving the actions of the protagonist's ancestors. So a lot of restrictions are put in place with the reasoning that "That didn't actually happen", and rather than dying the player simply de-synchronizes. It's a clever way to maintain narrative, but it really gets in the way. I mean what kind of open world won't let you kill annoying civilians (especially when they make a point of having civilians designed to annoy you). That's the least of the game's issues in this regard, though. The game is chock full of what I usually just call "BS death". I mean sure, it makes sense that you should aim to be stealth in a game called Assassin's Creed. Do the requirements really have to be so rigid thought?

Let's say that I have to Assassinate a target. The game will force you to remain undetected, and will kill you if you become discovered. Why does it have to kill you? Why can't he just call the guards and run away, forcing you to find him again? If I'm breaking into a castle and I get discovered, why do I have to immediately die? What if I kill the guard before he actually says anything? What could that guard have realistically done in the 1/2 second he noticed me? If I come upon a group of three guards, should I not have the chance to at least stop them from raising the alarm if I'm discovered? The point here is that, it seems like the only failure state the game has is death, and that's incredibly annoying, un-inventive, and yes restrictive. Honestly, I don't care about the narrative of how awesome my ancestors were. I don't care if Ezio would not have been discovered. I want a failure state that punishes me without forcing me to start everything all over again. Make it harder for me to proceed, but give me a chance to redeem myself.

All told, Assassins Creed Brotherhood is probably the least open world open world game I have ever played. For whatever reason the developers decided that they needed a stranglehold on where the player can go and what they can do. This is kind of strange considering how contrary it is to the spirit of an open world game. That's not to say it's a bad game, it's the best Assassin's Creed I've played so far. Looking at the design I really have to wonder why Ubisoft made the decisions they did, though.