Folklore: Whofore Art Thou, Charlotte?

This week, Kathy and I finished playing Folklore. I bought the game because I’d heard the story was great, and — as I wrote previously — I’d heard it was supposed to be an RPG. Wrong on both counts.

The gameplay was action/adventure throughout, with some RPG aspects, like leveling up and resource management. That was a bit of a surprise, but not a disappointment.

The disappointment was in how the story devolved into a mess.

The plot conveniences may have been helpful cop-outs for those who wrote them, but they made little sense to me. Important non-playable characters showed up with no explanation and then disappeared or died with little fanfare. One of the game’s seemingly major plots, a series of murders, is dismissed (pretty much resolution- and justice-free) with a few lines of dialogue about three-quarters of the way through.

And I never did learn to care about either of the two protagonists, who both alternated between braindead and omniscient. They either figured stuff out hours after I did, or they sussed out plot points with no evidence or explanation whatsoever.

My favorite unintentionally funny example of this was near the end of the game (This is so minor as to not even really be a spoiler). I’m walking around this Irish village where most of the game takes place, talking to people for what may be the last time. As my final stop, I go into the local pub to say my goodbyes to the barkeep. Our conversation ends with my character saying something like, “It’s important that Charlotte has a father. Promise me that you’ll take care of her.” The barkeep solemnly swears he will.

That’s all fine, except for one thing: Who the hell is Charlotte? I’d never even seen her or heard of her, much less met her! Yet, somehow, she means so much to me that the last lines I speak to a member of this village are about her. I found out afterward that she’s some little girl who spends the game in a building you never need to enter — so I hadn’t.

All that said, I kind of loved the game. The gameplay was a lot of fun. It wasn’t too twitchy and reaction-based. Even with my crap reflexes, it was possible to beat most battles with a good plan*. I always appreciate that.

My only gameplay complaint was regarding the placement of save points. Most games let you save right before a boss battle. Folklore, however, makes you save a few screens before each boss. So, should you lose against the boss, you have to waste about 10-15 minutes blasting through the same dozen chumps beforehand, every goddamn time. Besides that, though, I thought the battle system was well-constructed and fair.

And while the story’s execution was weak at times, the premise (fighting with and against faery folk in the land of the dead) and moral messages (including a kind of rebuttal of Pascal’s Wager) were cool.

Overall, I enjoyed Folklore and consider it twenty hours well-spent. But I’m still waiting for the PS3’s first great story (Uncharted is tops, so far). And I hope some full-fledged RPGs start rolling out on the system, soon. Fortunately, I’ve still got a bit of leftover PS2 fare (e.g., Persona 3) to tide me over.

* – There was, however, one boss battle that was tedious, unfair, and had Kathy and me on the brink of quitting. It was this giant flying, spinning lizard/shrimp/fish boss that would leave the screen for minutes at a time. So, even after we came up with a strategy to beat it, the battle took half a freaking hour each time we tried. After four or five tries, we were close to chucking the whole game. It was just stupid.

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Majestic: Requiem for a Failed Videogaming Experiment

Early in the millennium, I was the first (and, eventually, the last) web developer for EA’s short-lived, ambitious commercial failure, Majestic. Delivered via a blend of technologies — web, email, phone, fax, video, and IM — Majestic guided players through a government conspiracy thriller, with a bit of sci-fi added in.

Before Majestic was released, most of the press coverage focused on our mix of technologies, our introduction of episodic content into a game, and our attempt to usher in a new genre with the first big-budget, high-profile Alternate Reality Game (ARG).

The funny thing is, none of those was our primary goal in creating the game. They were just a means to the end mentioned in this paragraph [from the Deus Ex Machinatio post that inspired me to write this article]:

It looks at first like a trade-off, of course; do you provide a shallow but pleasant experience or do you provide an all-encompassing one? My hope is to structure games where that’s a false dichotomy. Games where a player can spend ten minutes a week, or every waking hour, and in either case come away with an enjoyable experience. Multiple levels of content available to suit your lifestyle.

That’s exactly what we wanted to do. In fact, that paragraph could have been taken from one of our early design documents.

Our goal was, simply, this: create an online, story-driven game to satisfy the most casual of gamers: people who could only play in short bursts every now and then. At the same time, try to keep the hardcore gamers satisfied. After considering different game genre options and combinations, Executive in Charge of Production Neil Young (the brains behind the project) convinced EA that an ARG would be the best format for achieving that goal. It was a bold choice by Neil — and a uncharacteristically risky move for EA.

Gameplay

As a gaming company, EA was most experienced in promoting PC and console games to the serious gaming community, and not online titles to the mass market consumers that the company ultimately sought. Because EA had no precedent for successfully leapfrogging the serious gamers and gaming press to get directly to the casual audience, we would still have to first win the approval of that hardcore crowd.

We didn’t.

For serious players, Majestic’s gameplay was too easy. It could be fun if you just wanted to play a role in the story; it wasn’t so good if you wanted to wrestle with gnarly puzzles. The first chapters of the game — while well-designed and balanced for casual gamers — were a breeze for the hardcore crowd. For them, the puzzles were too simple.

The main gameplay of Majestic fit into the “shallow but pleasant” category. In fact, this was enforced. Once you had accomplished a few goals (e.g., find a clue at a website and have an AIM conversation with a character from the game), which took anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour per day, you often couldn’t progress any further until the game contacted you or updated its content for you. You could wait longer than was necessary to engage the game again, but you couldn’t speed things up.

Having to wait for someone to return an email or phone call may have added a layer of realism, but it took away the player’s power (almost always a bad idea!) to choose how long to play each day. We could have — probably should have — allowed hardcore players to let the game progress at an accelerated pace if they wanted. Sure, each monthly episode might only take a player a couple of days. But if it were a satisfying experience, the player would probably participate the next month, too.

Late in the game’s development, some of us worked on an optional, web-only sidequest, which was much tougher and more time-consuming than the mission critical parts of Majestic. But it was added too late, and some of the hardcore gamers who played it wound up preferring the sidequest to the main game itself. (Maybe we should have developed it sooner and used it as an ARG to promote our ARG!)

Story

Our problems with balancing for different player types didn’t end with gameplay. Our storytelling was a culprit, too. I’m not talking about writing quality; our writers did a great job with the overarching plot and dialogue. I’m talking about how that story was presented.

Whereas Majestic’s gameplay erred on the side of being too simple, our storytelling was probably too demanding. We called Majestic episodic, but really, it was much more serialized. Though Majestic’s episodes were designed with beginning and ending points, I don’t think any one of them alone worked as a fully encapsulated story.

I think story- and media-heavy ARGs are as much interactive TV shows as they are videogames. And, at the time of Majestic, serialized storytelling wasn’t a standard method of delivering TV narratives. After Twin Peaks fizzled in 1991, TV networks had — except for soap opera fare like Melrose Place and 90210 — avoided true serialized primetime entertainment for the past decade. Though HBO had produced a season or two of The Sopranos, we still had a bit of a wait before breakthrough serials like Lost and 24.

Being serialized before the mass market had re-internalized it as a storytelling method probably made Majestic a harder sell. Had we come out with the game four or five years later, we may have had an easier time catching on. (And that’s not even considering the technology advances, like broadband and Ajax-capable browsers, that would have helped my cause as a web developer.)

To fully enjoy Majestic’s story, which was a convoluted puzzle in its own right, you had to be fully invested in it. While that’s not too much to ask from someone who will spend hours combing the Web for minutiae and looking for clues and patterns in that information, it doesn’t work for the people who are happy with their 10 minutes of content per day. It’s good to reward those who would go the extra mile, but you shouldn’t punish those who do no more than is required.

Again, this makes me think of Lost. For all of its shitty dialogue (everything is an argument, a question that never gets answered directly, or a “Dude/Freckles/WAAALT!” catchphrase), dangling plot threads, predictable twist-ending flashbacks, and unlikable characters, Lost does a very good job of spoonfeeding its smart-but-casual viewers enough of the right information to follow the main story. And the hardcore fans have plenty of extra information to dissect and discuss, ad infinitum, until the next episode airs. Lost works as a high-concept ensemble show with the world’s biggest collection of easter egg extras. That’s not a bad recipe for succeeding with both serious and casual consumers.

Though serialized entertainment is now more mainstream, I still think the episodic (or an episodic-serial hybrid) method makes for a viable, sometimes preferable, way of delivering ARG content. To maintain audience interest, each episode must be a complete and satisfying experience. Of course, within that framework, you’ll want to add continuity and long-term story arcs. But for a casual audience, the story must be enjoyable in smaller segments, and people should feel welcome to tune in at any time.

Think of hybrid shows like The X-Files or Buffy. While serious fans crave the plot advancement of the mythology episodes, both they and casual viewers can enjoy the standalones. More recently, Veronica Mars and Supernatural have aced the balance between episodic and serialized content. On those shows, each episode works on its own, but there are always well-integrated scenes that advance the full-season arcs. And even Lost (one final time), though its island story is almost completely serialized, has the flashbacks to give each episode some sense of beginning and ending.

Successes

Because Majestic was one of the only games of its kind, it was as much an experiment as it was a game. And, in that experiment, we did get some things right. As flawed as Majestic was, it wasn’t all that far off from succeeding.

The game designers were brilliant people who nailed some things, like seamlessly integrating the puzzles and minigames into the story. Because the gameplay and the plot were conceived — and then evolved — together, nothing felt tacked on. Except for some of the old Infocom text adventures, I can’t think of another game where the puzzles fit so naturally. The gameplay was part of the story, and vice versa.

Majestic’s writing quality was high, especially considering the massive volumes of text we needed generated by just a few people. Aside from head honcho Neil, the creative team mostly comprised people with backgrounds in film, TV, and theater. And it showed.

Finally, I still have no idea how the tech team got all our different technologies to cooperate and communicate with the game’s main database. Though Majestic never made it big, it was a triumph that the platform worked at all.

So the project was a success, in some ways. And where we went wrong, I think we learned lessons that would have helped us develop future projects that could have worked as a shallow/deep experience for gamers of all stripes.

Aftermath

Unfortunately for those of us who worked on Majestic, there were no follow-ups, and we never got to apply these lessons to another ARG. Development on the project was killed about four months after launch, and EA turned off the servers another few months after that.

The company refocused on churning out sequels and gobbling up established publishers and intellectual properties. Most of the Majestic staff returned to their previous lives, either within EA or back in the film, TV, and tech industries. A few of us tried pitching similar projects for a while. But, understandably, no big-budget studio wanted to risk losing money the way EA did on Majestic.

Hopefully, someday soon, that’ll change. I still feel guilty for my part in crippling an entire genre, just as it was getting started. Our success could have brought about (better) copycat games from every major game studio — as well as new games from our own team.

But our failure pretty much scared the studios away from anything of the sort. It’s probably up to the independent developers to come up with a superhit that makes the genre viable, once more. In the meantime, ARGs will continue to exist most successfully as viral marketing for TV shows, movies, and other videogames.

One of the saddest aspects of Majestic’s demise is that it’s gone forever. For other games (like movies, TV shows, and books), there is an afterlife. Titles may fail to catch an audience upon release, but they can be rediscovered years later: in used game bins, through emulation, or via download from an abandonware site. But because Majestic lived only on EA’s servers, it’s inaccessible, for good. If it weren’t for Wikipedia and Google, it’d be hard to find any evidence it ever existed at all.

Viking: Battle for Asgard — Run Away!

A highly touted, much-anticipated (at least by us) PS3 release, Viking ultimately falls flat on its lumbering, running face.

2 out of 10, THIS GAME SUCKS

Do you like to run? Do you like to run around a huge, empty world and pick up bags of gold? Do you like to run back through terrain you just spent 15 minutes running through? Then would you like to run some more? If you answered “Yes!” to all these questions, then Viking is the game for you. A more fitting name might have been Viking: Battle of Marathon.

The game, much like the similarly disappointing Assassin’s Creed, begins well enough. The undead legions of the Norse goddess, Hel, have overrun human settlements in her quest for vengeance against her fellow gods. You, the Viking warrior, Skarin, are saved from death in battle by the goddess, Freya, who wishes to save the realm.

Unfortunately, Skarin is a lifeless cardboard cutout with no personality. It appears Freya chose you as champion for no particular reason, other than that you dress differently from all the other vikings, who all dress the same. There is no backstory here; you don’t have a personality or motivation worth mentioning (unlike the compelling, family-murdering Kratos in God of War). You are just a random dying warrior Freya saved.

For the first few hours, I was enjoying myself. The ample violence and brutality of kills was enough to keep me interested. One particularly violent joy in this game is one of your finishing moves, where you whack the enemy’s head right off. As if he’s not dead enough already, you then hack down and take off his arms. I thought it was humorous, as it certainly is overkill (pun intended).

However, after a few more hours, the excessive running around began to slowly bleed out any enjoyment I felt. Thankfully, there are leystones, which serve as teleport points between areas in the game. Unfortunately, they can be few and far between, and they don’t help you with the recurrent backtracking in certain areas. Since the developers decided to make this game so running-intensive, they at least should have provided a sprint option to navigate more quickly.

The combat in Viking (like in many other games) steals amply from the God of War series. GoW continues to be the gold standard in hack-and-slash and must serve as the standard of judgment for games with similar combat systems.

When compared to the rapid-paced action of the GoW entries, Viking cannot compete. Skarin is more like a lumbering tank, and anything but your fastest attack takes a few seconds to initiate — and there are charged attacks that take even longer. It leads to a lot of awkward standing involved, while you and your enemies charge up. This all gives the game a clunky, ponderous feel, lacking the graceful and seamless fluidity in GoW combat.

That being said, there are powerup moves you can acquire to make combat a bit more interesting. However, the developers created built-in limitations for these powerups: you need to acquire crystal orbs from defeated enemies to utilize your new moves. Many of the moves require two crystals, and you can only stock five crystals at a time. So, once you run out (and you will quickly), you are back to standard stock attacks. It’s a needless restriction that contributes to the overall annoying nature of combat. Finally, when performing finishing moves on enemies, the game goes into slow motion. I cannot tell whether this is due to software/processor glitches or if it’s intentional. In any event, by the time you perform your 357th killing move in slow motion, you will be bored to death and wish it was over more quickly.

Here is my theory on these games: If you aren’t going to improve upon GoW-type combat, then at the very least, don’t do worse. I’d rather developers steal directly than drop the ball.

To obtain the advanced moves, you must visit the battle arena. There, a warrior spirit from Valhalla will train you. Oddly, you have to pay this ghost in gold for new skills. This bothers me. If there was a priest there, who demanded cash for access to the spirit, as a tithe to the Gods, I’d be fine with it. But directly paying a ghost in gold seems pretty stupid to me. What use does he have for gold? The developers should have gotten creative and had you drag him the head of a bad guy as a blood offering or something. I could see a ghost wanting that. It’s too bad designers get so comfortable with the gaming conventions and fail to see that gold as payment for all things is just a perpetuation of lame, status quo gaming. Details matter more and more in games, and paying a ghost in gold to train you is a sign of laziness.

You can also power up your axe and sword with fire, ice, and lightning runes. This works as a sort of hybrid between the magics and Rage of the Gods in GoW. You have a red meter that, when activated, powers up with whichever element rune you choose. It remains powered up until the meter drains to empty. These powerups are largely useless at lower levels. Your enemies crackle with minor energy damage (lightning), turn blue/white (ice) or run a bit red (fire). It improves later in the game, but still, this was another area where the developers were clearly lazy and went for a modest effect, rather than taking the time and energy to create something interesting and effective.

Another combat-related problem that Viking has is that the power orbs you pick up from dead enemies (these are red/green orbs that are blatantly stolen from GoW) don’t automatically flow to you—you have to get close enough to absorb them. This kind of sucks when you whack a guy and he falls off a cliff (there are lots of cliffs) or you step away a few feet to hack another person. This was a notable problem in GoW1 that was fixed in GoW2; in the sequel, the orbs automatically came to you after a kill. It is inexcusable that the developers of Viking would fail on this detail. Running around in a little circle and backtracking after every single kill (you will rack up hundreds) soon gets tedious.

One area worthy of praise is that you automatically go into a “stealth” mode when approaching enemies. You can purchase a combat upgrade from the warrior spirit that will allow for even better stealth and stealth kills. In some cases, enemies are actually asleep (why do undead warriors need sleep?) and you can initiate a quick kill on them. This is pretty cool, and I’m glad they thought of it. I enjoy these little details (when they get them right).

For most of the game, you will spend your time running around to free captive Vikings. These freed warriors will eventually amass into an army to attack a fort, stockade or stronghold. It remains unclear why Hel’s minions are capturing Vikings and allowing them to remain fully armed, armored, and dangerous in ramshackle wooden prisons. It also remains unclear how 15 fully armed and armored Vikings are not able to smash out of their dainty wooden prisons, but Skarin alone is able to do so on their behalf.

I’d also like to know why Hel’s minions are keeping fully armed and armored Vikings captive rather than just killing them. It could be that the undead eat them for food — that would be fine with me. But it still doesn’t explain why they are left fully armed and armored (sorry to beat this to death).

The objectives in the game are outlined in a map much like the one in Assassin’s Creed. However, it doesn’t really tell you which objective (there can be several) you should accomplish first. In some cases it’s intuitive, but in others, you run to an objective, only to find it is locked (you need a key) or blocked (you need explosives or something). You will then have to spend 5 to 10 minutes running to the next objective, hoping beyond hope that it is not locked.

At some point you will have freed enough Vikings to form an army and can call them to battle. The cutscenes here are pretty dramatic: dozens to hundreds of Viking warriors marching on dozens to hundreds of evil undead. You then take control of Skarin and the battle is on. While conceptually enticing, these mass battles fail in application.

Your Vikings do help you kill the bad guys, but they are strategically ineffective. First, there is so much going on, it is difficult to locate Skarin.

Second, you can in no way direct your army. They are morons. Many objectives require cutting through the enemy to kill multiple shamans who are raising undead reinforcements well behind the front lines. Viking allies hit the first wave of attackers and never penetrate much. That means you will have to wade through (and avoid) scores of creatures to get to the shaman. The game should have at least allowed for calling half a dozen Vikings to assist in your attack — a strike team of sorts.

You will also unlock dragons to assist you in battle. How awesome, you say! Locate a dragon gem, charge it with magic, place it on the dragon summoning stone and awake to service an 800-year-old beast! Look out, bad guys! I’m coming to battle and raining fire on you! Well, it’s not that easy. After you enter a large battle, only then do you find out that you also need a dragon rune to call the dragon to aid. Where do you locate one? Good question. After killing the first shaman in battle (shamans tend to be major battle objectives) you get a dragon rune! Now you will be ready to rain fire down on the other shaman! Not yet. You need two runes to destroy a shaman. So you have to destroy a second shaman before killing the third shaman.

Also of note is the development that shamans just happened to arbitrarily be carrying the one and only magic item Skarin can use to summon a dragon and destroy him and his fellow shamans! That seems awfully convenient. I was sure that, as the game went on, my enemies would wise up and destroy all the useless-to-them dragon runes they were carrying, so that I couldn’t use them, right? Nope. They carry them throughout the game. Idiots. I have no problem finding magic items in odd locations (like where I found the dragon gem), but the notion that bad guys would carry a rare and useless-to-them method of their own destruction for no particular reason irks me to no end.

Ok, finally, I was thinking I’d get some awesome cutscene fire rampage! Think again. You click the buttons to summon the dragon, it appears in the sky, it dives quickly, it breathes fire on the shaman, and (in the first battle) the battle abruptly ends. You’ve won. It all takes about 3 to 4 seconds (I counted) and was extremely anti-climactic. The quick dragon summoning you see in the commercials/trailers for this game is all that is actually in the game. At the very least, I thought it would be like summoning Bahamut (or Neo Bahamut or Bahamut Zero) in Final Fantasy VII on PS1. Remember how cool that was (and 10 years ago at that)? All the air in the vicinity got sucked up, the screen went black, and then a dragon appeared in space and spewed forth a laser that incinerated your enemies? This was nothing as cool as that.

So here we are again, where a PS3 game is trumped by scenes in a PS1 game from what, a decade ago? By way of additional comparison (to see how Viking fails to stack up), see the summoning videos of Final Fantasy VII on the PSP, as well as from the PS1, below.

It is a sad commentary on the state of PS3 development that the summons for the handheld PSP are excessively superior to the dragon summoning on the PS3 for Viking. It is absolutely ridiculous (I’m having buyer’s remorse. Perhaps I should have bought the PSP instead of PS3).

Viking Dragon (what you will see in battle is when the dragon burns the beached longboat at 1:21):

FFVII Crisis Core Bahumut PSP (holy shit is this cool!):

FFVII Crisis Core Phoenix PSP:

All Original FFVII Summons:

FFVII Bahamut Zero (PS1):

The voice acting in Vikings is subpar. Your allies all have cheesy British accents and stilted speech patterns. The script is about as cardboard as Skarin’s personality.

I was willing to cut Viking a lot of slack, because on paper it seemed tailor made for my interests: an ultraviolent hack-and-slash Viking game (my dream)! However, that only goes so far. This game ain’t no GoW2 (the greatest warrior game to date, and if you are going to aim for this target, you’d better not miss), nor does it come close.

Viking, much like Assassin’s Creed (review here) is not a finished product. I can only conclude the developers made an economic decision and rushed the beta version to market without proper testing and quality control. This seems to be an increasing pattern for PS3 releases (see Assassin’s Creed, Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, Army of Two, Turok, etc.). You may enjoy Viking for about 2 hours. I did. But after that, getting through it is a marathon that will test your endurance for repetitive stupidity. My advice would be to pass this game up and go replay God of War 2. It might be the only thing capable of washing the bad taste of Viking out of your mouth.