Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Great Video Game Debate, Take 7: Role Playing Games

Well, kids, it's time for the final installment of Soul Kerfuffle, LastBestAngryMan, and my little running debate on the best and worst games of all time. For our grand finale, we will be presenting our choices for the best role playing video games of all time.

For me personally, computer RPGs will never quite match the fun, camaraderie, and creativity of tabletop games. Since you are interacting with a computer through pregenerated situations, your actions and creativity are somewhat limited and the characters will never truly truly 100% be exactly what you want. In my opinion, the games with the best and most involving stories, settings, and characters are by far the best computer RPGs since they can bring the player the closest to the experience of tabletop gaming.

Now, a quick word of recognition: computer role playing games today would not be what they are if not for Gary Gygax, the creator of Dungeons and Dragons. Even today, the mechanics he developed for tabletop role playing games have been automated and digitalized to provide the engines for just about every role playing computer game today.

That said, let's get on with the list, shall we:

#5 Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines (PC)

This game, much like Rune, was a bargain-bin impulse purchase that turned out to be extremely entertaining. Based off of White Wolf, Inc.'s Vampire: The Masquerade tabletop RPG and set in the company's "World of Darkness" version of Los Angeles, you find yourself a new fledgling vampire with a dead master and a huge debt to pay.

The computer version's game play is incredible and from my (very) brief experience with the tabletop Vampire, the character development (a key to all RPGs) was very accurately modeled. Clans, skills, and factions all seem to correspond nicely with the d6 system and the storyline (which is very well-developed) allows progression for any number of different character builds (stealthy, brute force, charming, etc...)

By far the best aspect of the game, however, are the numerous and unique characters and your interaction with them. The conversations are well-written, the voice acting is some of the best in any game, and the characters are deep, well-conceived, and all have interesting agendas and back stories (especially Therese and Jeanette).

There's a lot of goth vampire chicks too.

Unfortunately, most people have never played this game - it had the poor luck of being released around the same time Half Life 2.

#4 Neverwinter Nights 2 (PC)

Let me start off by saying the game has a lot of problems. The gameplay is repetitive ("yay, another dungeon crawl"), the feats don't work like they do on tabletop D&D, and the first solid hour of the game is so damn boring that I put it down for two years and didn't play it again until recently (I'll get into that later in the blog post, however).

So then what about NWN2 is so great that it overcomes all the negative to make it on to this list?

Easy. Characters. The first Neverwinter Nights was a great dungeon crawl game with a cool plot and some fun characters who never really developed all that much. In its subsequent iterations, the NWN Series has consistently improved upon the interactions with non-player characters by allowing more characters into a party and, well, making them not like each other.

NWN2 takes this to a whole new level with about twelve characters who can join and leave your party and many other non-party NPCs, all of whom have very different personalities, agendas, likes, dislikes (usually other characters in the party), etc... The most entertaining part of the entire game is watching them sling one-liners at each other.

Mechanically, your actions and words affect your standing with each and every one. Neglect the Elf Druid by traveling too long with the Tiefling Rogue and things are gonna get downright catty. Help the little angry Dwarven Fighter along his path to become an enlightened monk and he'll be your friend for life. Or you could always just join in when the Evil Human Ranger mocks the Gnome Bard. Now that's fun for all. In all honesty, this game has made the greatest strides towards a genuine tabletop feel. You know, except for the "meh" plot (unbelievably awesome at times, unplayable at others) and extremely boring and repetitive gameplay...

Pretty much the game in a nutshell.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (PC)

Oblivion is the perfect marriage of my two favorite game genres: first person shooters and role playing computer games. It's challenging, involving, graphically beautiful, and absolutely one of the most open games I've ever played. There is so much to do in this game that it's borderline ridiculous. You can walk across the entire continent, pick up every fork on a table, open every dresser, talk to every person, rob every person, etc...

Honestly, the game gives you options like no other: you can develop your character with any combination of skills or morality you can think of. You really can do almost whatever the hell you want. As long as you can get away from the city guards.

Oblivion takes it's proud place on this list because of this obscene amount of freedom (take note Obsidian) combined with great writing, development, graphics, sound, music, and of course, voice talent.

Come on man, Patrick Stewart won an award for his portrayal of the Emperor!!! Just listen...

#2 Jade Empire (PC/XBox)

As I said above, for me, a game's ability to tell a good story is one of its most critical aspects. I absolutely love games like the Half-Life series, Oblivion, Warcraft III, and the King's Quest series, all of which I believe tell some of the best and most interesting stories.

Jade Empire, to me, is truly exceptional even when compared to the best of games. Personally, I think it delivers one of the most enthralling stories of any RPG ever developed. Great characters, "good/evil" mechanics, and gameplay really help move the story along nicely. Add in phenomenal graphics and music and you have one of the best games of all time (which may be true simply by the amount of awards it has won).

You'd think Ang Lee directed it.

#1 The Secret of Silverblades (PC)

Yeah, I said it - an old school gold box AD&D game from TSR and SSI. The graphics were all right, the gameplay archaic, and I don't even remember the story line. I don't even know how or when I came into possession of this game. In fact all I remember is that it was fun cutting down Red Dragons and that I couldn't play it in front of my grandmom because she thought Lucifer was going to tear through the screen and rip my soul into the netherworld.

Honestly, though, only one fact is important here - it was my introduction to role playing games in general. My grade school buddy came over one day and said his brother played Dungeons and Dragons. Next thing I knew I was rolling up my first character. Then I got the books (which nearly sent my grandmom catatonic - she got over it in time). Then I got the supplements. Then I started playing with a few friends in college.

I am the proud geek I am today because of this game.

Honorable Mentions: the 1st Final Fantasy, Fable, Darklands, NWN: Hordes of the Underdark, Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Warrior, Might and Magic: Dark Messiah, Gladius

Game I should play: Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (PC)

Every person who's opinion I respect says this RPG has the best story, hands down. Embarrassingly, I've never played it. Guess I'm going to have to get on that...

Biggest Disappointment: Obsidian Entertainment

Instead of coming out with a worst RPG of all time (even though it probably would have been that pitifully boring and repetitive Silverfall), I'm just going to briefly mention Obsidian Entertainment in general. Yes, I know Neverwinter Nights 2 is an Obsidian Game and is on my best RPGs list. Knights of the Old Republic 2 has several great aspects as well.

The problem isn't that Obsidian makes horrendously bad games, it's that the games they develop, much like Detmer quarterbacks, never live up to their potential. They take successful game franchises like Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic, spruce them up with pretty graphics, cool features, and some of the best characters in any game, write some interesting plot twists and turns and hooks, and then leave such huge gaping holes (especially with the endings) that players feel cheated.

Poor form, Obsidian. Hire someone to write endings for your games.

Bad Movie Night: 10,000 BC

The other night, The Machete, The Jake-iddy-Jake, and I decided to take in 10,000 BC and see what all the hype was about. I have to say the movie was extremely watchable. I also have to disclose, however, about 95% of the "watchability" was due to the obscene amount of Grey Goose I had before hand which made its sheer wretchedness seem funny (much like that night I broke my ankle).

The stunning pain I felt the next morning (which may have been more from the movie than the booze) made me realize that 10,000 BC was very much akin to another cinematic masterpiece: Dragon Wars (full review here). To put it very bluntly (and about as eloquently as it deserves), just about every aspect of this movie was sub-par at best (save for the CGI). Direction, acting, and writing all join together like a drunken Voltron to stumble around for about two hours before completely falling apart into a vile lump of garbage.

Now, I am currently reading Graham Hancock's Fingerprints of the Gods, a book which presents evidence of "advanced" cultures which may have existed prior to the settling of the Fertile Crescent. It's a very interesting and involving read, and I guess I figured that 10,000 BC would be somewhat akin to that. While the story kinda-sorta hints at the same theories presented in Hancock's book, I failed to read the fine print.

For those who don't know, the fine print reads "From the Director of Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow." That basically damns any redeemable concept to a hell of large and gaudy sets, digitalized catastrophes, vapid dialog, and good old-fashioned heroes who save the day (aka cheesy endings).

It is my theory that when test audiences saw the first cuts of the movie, the producers took note of when 90% of the test groups fell asleep. They then recut the movie to include massive CGI animals right at those times as a lame attempt to keep movie-goers from walking out with cheap cinematic parlor tricks. "Hey, maybe they won't notice how poor this is if we throw in a big saber-toothed tiger?!?!?!"

It didn't work. While the aforementioned sabertooth tiger, the wooley mammoths, and PCP-addicted giant ostriches were pretty cool, nothing could possibly overcome the absolutely inane dialog delivered by the dreadlock-wearing characters with odd names. "Hey, just throw some hyphens and quotation marks between some vowels - that sounds cavemanish, right?" For additional authenticity, the actors employed the same accent used by Grimlock of the old 1980's Transformers cartoon and the writers added lines about stars, seasons, and agriculture and referred to boats as "birds" or something ridiculous like that.

"Me, Tic-Tic, Angry!!!"

All in all, this movie was mildly entertaining primarily due to the drunken state I saw it in. If I had seen it sober, well, "me, N'de, Angry!!! Want paper color of spring grass with face of previous American chieftain back!!!" Therefore I am going to rate it at a meager 1.25 Dragonwars.

(1 Dragonwars = worst movie ever; 10 Dragonwars = really good movie).

Monday, March 10, 2008

Mr. Gygax, this is what I learned.

A few days back, my friend over at Soulkefuffle emailed me a news link which reported that Gary Gygax, the man credited with developing the Dungeons and Dragons tabletop role playing game, had passed away.

Much like Soulkerfuffle, the majority of my wedding party will be made up of friends I have gamed with in the past including (but not limited to) the beautiful and demure Lavanalla, the powerful yet compassionate Severus Thrax, and my kindred spirit Joshua Tasden. Even a few of the wily Calico family of thieves from decades ago will make appearances. Who would have guessed that when all the Frost Giants have been tripped and the burning silos reduced to cool embers, that Bradje would eventually settle down? Not Bradje, that's for sure.

Sparkle Sparkle

But I digress...

Despite generally being viewed by the public as something very "nerdy" or "geeky," the character development and storylines played out in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign can have a very real and positive effect on the participants (unless your DM gets pissed off at one of your good 20-sided dice and throws is off a sixth-story balcony). This is especially true when you get to "game" with the great story tellers, actors, and mathematicians (I'm looking at you, Keflen, king of the number crunchers!!!) who you are extremely good friends with and who honestly know you well.

If you look past the swords and spells and monsters and maidens, you will see the situations and interactions present in tabletop gaming can really be a window into your own soul and personality. For me, the best characters I've ever played were little adaptations and aspects of my "real life" character. To the uninitiated this sounds weird (and nerdy - how can you relate to a 200 year old fireball hurling elf?), but to those who've seriously "role played" before, you know exactly where I'm coming from.

Thanks to the hard work of Mr. Gygax, I know myself a little better. From my time in Eberron, the Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, serving time on "the wall," etc... I've learned a few things. I'd like to take a few seconds to relate some of them. So without further ado...

Five things I've learned playing D&D:

"Experience" defines us

D&D has an inherent system for advancing characters. As you "do things" like slaying a dragon, negotiate a treaty between rival kingdoms, use skills, etc..., you gain "experience points" which are used to gauge how powerful (what level) you are. The more "experience" you have, the stronger your character is.

In order to truly advance and understand what you're capable of on many levels, however, you need to seek out more "worthwhile" experiences. Killing the same old weak skeletons and zombies day after day does nothing for character - you need to find things which better test you and from which you can learn. Save a princess, fight a dragon, get your masters degree, learn a new language, find a new job, or tell that lich where he can shove his ioun stones!!!

Never back down

Now I'm not saying "never back down" in terms of getting damn near killed mouthing off to the 15th level half orc barbarian when you're a 3rd level gnomish bard and the guy accidentally bumped into you and is apologizing.

What I am saying, however, is when you're staring down the forces of the abyss and all of "humanity" is on the line, that is the time to make your stand, no matter how hopeless it may look. When presented with an ethical judgment, go with your character. Don't steal that cursed sword, don't sign off on that design when you know it's flawed, don't trust that crazy bitch Vincenna, and when your guide turns on you and is about to chop the rope that's dangling you over a miles-deep gorge, flip upside down and shoot him in the face with a fire arrow, then let your halfing friend chop him to bits when you finally catch him.

The decisions you make and the stands you take not only define you to other people, they inherently become part of you and can guide your actions in the future.

Learn from and accept mistakes

So you've made a deal with Baphomet to exchange part of your immortal soul for extreme power? So you've been seduced by the Swanmay and are now 9 months away from parental responsibility? So you've sent one of your friends to the grave (again, but this time permanently damning him to eons of torture) with a not-so-judicious use of a spell called Phantasmal Killer? So you've let some aging human knock your beutiful elven self up? So you've left a path of destroyed towns and burning silos in your wake? I will do everyone I know a favor and not start spouting off real world scenarios that include me jumping off railings, taking years to graduate, buying a Saab, etc...

Deal with it. Running away from problems only makes them worse (ask Bradje). With every mistake comes the opportunity to learn, correct, and make up for your (usually bone-headed) actions, at least on some level. Mistakes, while embarrassing and painful at times, build character - at least you know the consequences of your actions and what not to do next time.

Friends will always be there to help, but will never let you live things down

Sometimes a Frost Giant just needs to be tripped over a ledge to show him who's boss. And sometimes a character needs to be grabbed by said Frost Giant as it's tumbling over the cliff for him to realize that such undertakings may not be most rational plan.

And sometimes a friend steps up and saves you with a column of air at just the right time to prevent you from falling to your untimely demise. Or they take your keys when you really should be operating a motor vehicle. Or drives you to the hospital when you jump off a 15 foot railing and crack your ankle. Or pulls you away from a burning silo before you do more damage.

It's true, your best friends in life will be there for you no matter how many times you muck things up. It is also their right (and comedic privilege) to make sure you never do something so damn stupid again by reminding you of how stupid you were.

You need to take chances/Nothing is ever hopeless

And that's why you roll the dice. All of the armies of the abyss could be closing in on you. A millennium-old vampire and his thralls could be staring you down. The evil god of pestilence and disease could have your brother's soul. You may not think you're qualified for the job. She may not be everything her friend talks her up to be. You may not be everything her friend talks you up to be.

It doesn't matter the situation, you'll never know the outcome unless you take the shot. It could be a calculated shot. It could be from the hip. It could turn out perfectly and the world could be saved. It can strike a protective rune and decimate an ancient elven society.

No matter how much of a long shot, if the outcome could be worth it, you need to let the 20-sider fly.

And now, as a parting word to Mr. Gygax: Thank you. You have not only provided us with access to fun, excitement, and a host of kindred spirits, but also to a lot of character development and "growing up." We are the people we are today in part because of your work.