Tuesday, October 17, 2017

VR Report: I Expect You To Die

I'll start with the first game I downloaded and played during Sony's VR sale last week: “I Expect You to Die.” This game takes place in a first-person setting where you and your floating hands begin, sitting at a desk in a 1960-70's era briefing room. You're a spy, and you must load some projector film to learn about your mission, where you are told that you will probably die while trying to complete the mission. The game feels like a fusion between the early James Bond films and Get Smart, with sticks of dynamite wired to a timer, champagne and cigars, and laser defenses that can cut you in half. You must manipulate objects around you to solve the puzzle/situation that you are in. For instance, your first mission begins with you seated inside a car that is inside a cargo plane. Your mission is to get the car out of the plane, mid-flight, and hope that the car's parachute system will deploy. As you look around the car, you'll find clues. You need to try different objects out and manipulate them with your hands to make progress: find the ignition key to turn on the car and once the car is on, roll down the window to grab a screwdriver outside, which you can use to unscrew a panel on the car and find a compartment with a knife, which you'll need to cut the wires of the bomb that you discover in the glove-box! This is just an example of the kinds of things you'll be doing, but it's a ton of fun and yes...you will die as you try different things through trial-and-error. One added bonus is that between missions, you accumulate some of the items you've found during missions, so you can play with them without consequence in the briefing room. I enjoyed putting dynamite by a row of books, blowing it up from a distance with my gun, and then tossing a lit lighter at a plant to turn the briefing room into a blazing inferno, all while having a glass a champagne, which I shattered against a wall after drinking. For $10, this game is definitely worth it, but from what I've seen with the trophies, there only seems to be 4 missions total? Hopefully there will be expansions later.

Monday, October 16, 2017

VR Report

It's been a while since I've written anything about Virtual Reality, but I've been active with it, and have been watching for any new pieces of VR news. In the past, I've given a very positive review to the tower-defense game Ancient Amuletor and to the team game Star Trek: Bridge Crew. I've been trying to keep my library of VR games diverse so that I can experience different game styles, especially when there are way too many VR games that are now known as “wave based shooters.” With only a month away for Skyrim VR's release, I figured now was a good time to talk about some of the other VR games and experiences I've been enjoying. Last week, Sony had a VR game sale, so I purchased three different games: Fated ($5), I Expect You to Die ($10), and Arizona Sunshine ($20). I've had a lot of fun, and wanted to share some of my observations with you, if you've been considering getting a VR headset or already have one and are thinking about new games to try...

Friday, October 13, 2017

Writing a Mission Story-Arc (part 5)

I hope you've enjoyed a little insider's view of the upcoming mission, tentatively titled Operation: Broken Citadel. Thus far, I've been busy working on the maps for this mission, because as I've been writing it, I've been finding it necessary to have a clear and precise vision of the area where the first part of the mission takes place. Not only will this mission have a number of map pages, but there will also be a variety of map icons to use for various environmental events and situations. This is all shaping up to be an exciting, action-packed mission, coupled with compelling intrigue and character interaction along the way. Stay tuned for a few future updates over the next month, and a battle report after it is first played over the Thanksgiving weekend!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Writing a Mission Story-Arc (part 4)

I have written a tag-along NPC before in a mission called "The Seeds Of Chaos." In Broken Citadel, I'm planning to have two potential tag-along NPC's that will be somewhat at odds with each-other. They will have various roles towards the success of the mission, but because the mission itself was not officially assigned through the team's Operations Sergeant, there will be some gray areas regarding how to proceed. Players will have to make choices to prioritize their own mission goals and parameters as they go, and they will have to consider the different goals and methods recommended by the two tag-along NPC's. They must also do all this under the pressure of a persistent threat and looming time constraints.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Writing a Mission Story-Arc (part 3)

I do plan to have a couple returning NPC characters from Void Hunter, but prior knowledge of these characters is not necessary to enjoy the encounters with them. The behavior of these characters will be rather open-ended, depending on how the players left things with them in Void Hunter or how they react to them as new players. This sounds like a lot of extra writing to sort through, but it isn't; like other missions I've written, the character's motives, goals, and personality will be outlined, and it is up to the GM to act out that NPC accordingly. There will be some interesting moral dilemmas posed through these NPC's, too, because they have very different agendas.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Writing a Mission Story-Arc (part 2)

I'm writing the new mission, Broken Citadel, as both a sequel and a stand-alone mission. If players have already completed Void Hunter, Broken Citadel will pick up exactly where their characters left off. However, if a new group of players are jumping into Broken Citadel without prior knowledge of the events in Void Hunter, it will still be a simple transition for those players. They will hear about the crucial events of Void Hunter through NPC's gossiping about what another team of agents did on the Void Hunter mission, and they will learn more details from an NPC character encounter near the beginning of the Broken Citadel mission. This character will shed light on events for both new players and Void Hunter veterans.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Writing a Mission Story-Arc (part 1)

A few months ago I ran a poll to find out what people were most interested in seeing next for Solar Echoes. The highest percentage of votes was for an overarching story across multiple missions. You may not have known it back when it released in July, but Operation: Void Hunter was the first installment of a larger story. Part 2 of that story is now underway, and it is currently titled Operation: Broken Citadel, planned for release around Thanksgiving. The very first gamers that will get to try the mission will be gamers at the Chessiecon convention over Thanksgiving weekend. But what if those gamers aren't familiar with the events in Operation: Void Hunter?

Friday, October 6, 2017

The Versatile GM (part 4)

Sometimes a GM will encounter individual players that can change the tone of the game for the group. This is sometimes related to that player having a different style preference than the other gamers in the group, or it can be due to personality differences. In cases like this, the GM may have to adjust the game slightly to include something for everyone. If that player is too extreme in his preference or approach as compared with the rest of the group, the GM might need to have a side discussion with that player and see if a compromise can be reached. In other instances, a player might just be too sophisticated or too immature for the rest of the group. If this is the case, the GM can challenge that player or the group to help “manage” each other. I've seen a young child playing the game with a group of adults, and the adults worked to guide the young player, even making up stories to fool the young player into behaving a particular way. It can be a fun experience if you have the right make-up of personalities, but if an ongoing conflict persists, it might be time to ask a player to join a different group that would be more suited for their playstyle. In the end, the goal is for everyone to have fun playing an RPG and to walk away with great memories of the experience. The GM needs to stay versatile and creative in order to make an RPG fun for the players!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Versatile GM (part 3)

Some role-playing gamers would rather spend hours in discussion planning every move carefully, arguing over the best possible approach until everyone has a very specific role to execute at a very specific time. Paralysis-by-analysis can certainly slow the progression of a game, but it is the GM's job to discern whether his players are spending so much time planning because that is what they enjoy, or because the GM has left things too vague or has failed to provide proper incentives. If a gaming group is spending too much time planning and seems reluctant to take action, the GM can prompt players to act by creating time-sensitive situations. Another technique a GM can use is the call for certain skill checks from his players, revealing information to them if they successfully use their skills. For example, the “Resourcefulness” skill in Solar Echoes is a rather open-ended skill that can serve as a gateway for GM hints to the players. Not sure what to do here? Succeed at a Resourcefulness check, and suddenly your character “realizes” that he can utilize a particular environmental advantage, an object, or something else to help achieve goals.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Versatile GM (part 2)

One type of RPG gaming group is the combat-shy crowd; I've run games for groups like this and they prefer to focus on the role-playing aspect of the game so much that they will actively seek to avoid every possible combat encounter. As a GM, it is important to adjust the scenario to involve more dialogue-intensive situations where the threat of combat looms but can be circumvented through clever wordplay. These types of players are interested in story and character development, so the GM needs to be a good story-teller and an entertaining actor, in addition to being skilled at improvising. However, another type of gaming group is the combat-hungry crowd, where the players would much rather enter battle than try talking it out. The GM will need to keep dialogue and narrative sections short for players like this, and move from one action scene to the next in order to keep the attention and interest of the players. If a GM prefers a different type of gaming style than his players and has trouble adjusting, then it might be time to consider finding a new gaming group with similar preferences to the GM.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Versatile GM (part 1)

If you are a Game Master (GM) and play RPG's with others, you probably have experienced a few different types of gaming groups. There are different styles of GMing necessary for each type of group, and if the players are going to have fun, it is up to the GM to figure out how to adjust to and manage the players. If a GM doesn't know his players' preferred gaming style, conflict and boredom can derail a gaming session quickly. The GM has to be extremely flexible and be ready to wear a variety of “hats” in order to accommodate the preferences of his gaming group. It is likely that conflict will arise if a player's style is not being considered, because a player's boredom often results in that player becoming a volatile maverick in the gaming session. A bored player might try to “spice things up” by random acts of destruction or by having his character behave in an overly aggressive or inappropriate way. However, entire groups of players sometimes enjoy being incredibly destructive in a scenario—it may not be the result of player boredom. If this is the case, the GM has two options: he can either shift his focus to providing over-the-top combat opportunities as if the players are in a Michael Bay movie, or he can try to discipline his players with dire consequences in the game for their crazy behavior with the hope of getting them refocused and back on track. Ultimately, though, the GM should prioritize player fun over his desire to follow his plans for the adventure—otherwise, there might not be any players around for the next gaming session.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Friday, September 29, 2017

Unique Plots (part 5)

If you're unfamiliar with concepts like chaos theory or the butterfly effect, suffice it to say that the smallest variety of factors can have very far-reaching and unexpected effects. If two people wrote about the same exact plot, they'd end up with very different stories because of their choices in setting, style, and the characters involved. Giving two writers the same plot is like telling two composers to both write in the same meter and key--they'll still both produce something unique. I'm not saying that you shouldn't have a basic plot in mind when you write—stories that lack a plot often suffer for it; I'm just saying that your plot probably isn't going to be what most impacts people through the story you tell.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Unique Plots (part 4)

Are you a writer suffering from writer's block? Start writing! Your block is likely because you are demanding of yourself a totally original plot. Chances are, your plot has been done before in some shape or form, and inevitable comparisons will be made despite how unique you thought your plot was. In fact, when sending a submission to a literary agent or publisher, sometimes it's a good idea to let them know what your story is similar to. Movie producers listen to countless movie pitches and their experience allows them to quickly compare pitch ideas with several other similar movies to judge the merit of a pitch. Yes, a plot is an important factor in a story, but often it develops during the journey of writing. If you are striving for a truly unique plot, you're probably wasting your time trying to design it that way before you even start. Just get writing!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Unique Plots (part 3)

For a moment, think of your favorite books, movies, and TV shows, and try to condense a basic plot into a single sentence. Here's an example from a TV series I just watched: people are disappearing in a small town because a deadly creature has been released from a parallel dimension and it can only be stopped by the young girl that accidentally opened the gate to its world. This very plot is from the first season of a popular TV series that spans roughly 8 hours. A simple, single-sentence plot was woven into an 8-hour story, and done in such a way that I and a friend of mine separately watched all 8 hours straight through—we couldn't step away, it was so engrossing! The plot on its own isn't incredibly compelling, though, but the way the story was told, the pacing, the characters and other elements that were involved made it something I couldn't walk away from.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Unique Plots (part 2)

Many would argue that it is more how the story is told than the story itself. In the case of books, it might be the author's writing style, full of descriptive and flowery prose. Clever wordplay, impressive vocabulary, frequent use of thought-provoking metaphors and similes, and an assortment of other writing techniques all make up an author's style. We see this in cinematic storytelling as well, because a director's style can turn a simple story into a masterpiece, just like a talented conductor can interpret a piece of music and bring out amazing results from an orchestra. Style does contribute a great deal to the overall reception of a work, so is a unique plot really that important?

Monday, September 25, 2017

Unique Plots

How important is it that a story is unique? When you think about a story you've enjoyed and try to explain it to someone else, do you find their lack of enthusiasm frustrating? As you tell the story that impacted you so deeply--whether it was a book, TV series, movie, or even a story from a game--it seems to fall flat in the telling as you often realize the plot was not as profound or complex as you thought it was. When we really think about it, most plots have been used over and over again, and these days, a truly unique plot is a rare exception. Yet despite this, there are so many stories that still have a large impact upon a wide audience. Is the plot what makes a good story, or is it something else?

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Villains of Solar Echoes (part 5)

Although they can't exactly be called “villains,” the Union Guard must also concern itself with non-sentient threats, such as robots and alien lifeforms. There are thousands of planets in the universe with a wide variety of alien lifeforms, and quite a number of them are dangerous. Though these lifeforms are rarely the target of an investigation, it is not uncommon for agents to have to traverse the wilds of alien planets and encounter the deadly denizens along the way. Robots are also a common threat to UG agents, especially those used for security by criminal organizations. In some cases, robots could arguably even be considered “sentient,” because rogue or illegal AI programs have sometimes resulted in robotic monsters that must be put down and thoroughly dismantled. Innocent service bots can sometimes malfunction, or even be repurposed and weaponized. It is a dangerous universe out there—are you ready to join the agents of the Union Guard?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Villains of Solar Echoes (part 4)

Yet some of the villains that Union Guard agents will face are not even among the seven sentient races. Sightings and encounters at the Edge or beyond known space have shown that the member races in the Interstellar Union are not alone. A powerful, crystalline alien known as the Arunox that lives on worlds uninhabitable by the other races has occasionally encroached upon the territories of others, and their strange technology and resilient nature have shown them to be impervious to the cold vacuum of space, making their attacks on starships with controlled interior environments truly devastating. Worse, however, is an elusive alien foe that has been kidnapping people from all races and has—at least twice—sent in small but extremely powerful probes to test the Union's defensive capabilities. Though information on these aliens is classified, the secretive “Immortals” cult actively seeks the aliens and has repeatedly shown themselves to be extremely dangerous. What other alien threat lies beyond known space? What powerful foes have simply not deigned to concern themselves with us yet? 


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Villains of Solar Echoes (part 3)

Some say that the three major crime organizations in the universe are behind every lawless, nefarious act in known space. Though that is unlikely, it is understandable why the assumption can be made when seeing just how much crime leads back to these three enormous organizations. Some suggest the three are at war with each other, while others assert that their occasional skirmishes and conflicts are merely a show to hide that they are working together to control the entire Interstellar Union. The diverse specialties between each group does have the Union Guard concerned, however, considering that the Blackstars specialize in information acquisition and manipulation, the Quass'eth specialize in illegal finance, and the Blood Reach specializes in assassinations. Not a single government has remained untouched by their influence, nor has the ISU itself completely managed to avoid all entanglements. If not for the efforts of the Union Guard to disrupt their consolidation of power, the three might have merged into a nightmarish and unstoppable criminal power.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Villains of Solar Echoes (part 2)

During the course of their investigations and the various missions they are assigned, Union Guard teams will slowly begin to connect the dots and find that many of the seeming minor criminal groups are actually tied to larger criminal organizations. Instead of what seemed like a few independent small gangs, they'll discover a much larger mafia organization orchestrating the activities of several gangs. Lone-wolf hackers are often part of a larger crime syndicate, operating as a web-like group, attacking from hundreds of different locations at once. Smugglers and pirates are usually in the employ of a mafia or syndicate that wants to extend its influence into space and neighboring regions. Sometimes they only way to find a connective thread is to bust the small-time criminals first. But even when larger groups like mafia crime organizations or corporate syndicates are revealed, there is yet another layer to be unraveled...

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Villains of Solar Echoes

Most stories need an antagonist opposite the protagonist, and this is even more important in Solar Echoes—a game where you and your team play as Union Guard special agents on the side of the law. Just who are the villains in Solar Echoes, though? To get to know the major players, we have to start small. In a universe that involves FTL (faster-than-light) speed travel, known space is a very, very large area. The further one gets from civilized, well-traveled areas, however, it becomes more likely that the outer reaches of known space are a haven for criminals hiding out from the law. Small colony worlds far from populated regions and law-enforcement are more likely to be plagued with crime—unless the local population manages to establish their own crime-fighting forces. But it's safe to say the initial threats that UG agents will face involve your basic criminal elements: pirates, smugglers, hackers, gangs, and other fledgling criminal enterprises.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Enhancing Old Missions (part 4)

In addition to the mall map icon advice, I also recommended the use of Legos for the various mall robots, and included pictures of some of my creations. Who doesn't love playing with Legos? I bought a few sets that looked like they had the pieces I wanted, then began to build each of the robots in the mission, from the Janitor-cleaning robot to the giant Delivery-bot that carries huge packages around. My daughter actually designed the freakish and hilarious Delivery-bot, with it's gigantic, scary claws to it's funny googly eyes. These models may not be exactly to scale, but there's nothing better than putting a logo-robot monstrosity down on the map and seeing your players' excited and fearful expressions. When preparing this mission, I know I liked the excuse to go buy some legos and then try to construct the robots in the mission. I also bought some small Hotwheels cars for the car chase in the mission. Solar Echoes gives you a great opportunity to tap into your youth and play with toys again!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Enhancing Old Missions (part 3)

Although updating format, colorizing, and adding in the new art borders was the biggest change, I've also added in some new content for the shopping mall. I realized that every time I ran this mission, I unfolded my giant grid map (wet-erase) and drew a few hallways. I then positioned several paper cut-out objects around the grid map for obstacles such as a water fountain or some crates to represent mall sales kiosks. I decided that for this mission update, I wanted to provide the same thing, rather than leave it entirely to the MC to figure out. The problem with making a map for a shopping mall is that it would be huge. Player's should be able to explore wherever they want to, so I've always left the mall as a more open-ended, improvisatory map. Even though malls have a lot of wide open space, characters will need to have options for cover when they battle the rampaging mall robots. I made some color map icons that MC's can print and cut out to use on a large grid map. I also included some instructions and photos detailing how I've done it and what to keep in mind. The sale kiosks were especially fun to design, as each one targets a specific alien race. For example, there is a “Buckles & Baubles” kiosk for Archaeloids, “Hydropontific! Wearable Organic Systems” for Erwani, and “Sweetasties” for the sugar-loving Chiraktis.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Enhancing Old Missions (part 2)

The end result for the art borders was fantastic! But why did I want these borders for stat blocks, other than to add a little aesthetic polish? One reason was because the old missions didn't have a lot of artwork, and these art borders compensated nicely for that. The other reason was that it made it a lot easier to instantly look at a page and recognize what challenges the players were going to be encountering. You can now page through a mission and quickly get a great idea about every single challenge the players will be dealing with. In the Seeds of Chaos mission, you'll see quite a large number of different robots initially, later followed by a number of different NPC's. There are some vehicles for a car chase, as well. Now it is easier for the Mission Controller (the Game Master) to quickly locate what he needs to reference across multiple pages. Ultimately, though, I wanted to add in art borders because it really pops out and has a lot of character. Vehicle borders have wheels, anti-grav lifts, thrusters, starship cockpits, engines, and other machinery. Lifeform borders include all kinds of organic creature art such as claws, eyeballs, hair, scales, tentacles, etc. Robot borders have gears, lights, and other tech-looking details. Character borders include each alien race's emblem and equipment typically used by each race. And hacking grid borders have a more digital look with various polygons representing the nodes in cyberspace. The borders turned out great!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Enhancing Old Missions

What exactly is new with the enhanced edition of the 3-year old mission, “The Seeds of Chaos?” For one thing, I've added in a lot of color. Originally, when Solar Echoes released in 2012, I was avoiding color as much as possible because I was working on printing the books (and color is more expensive.) Now that I'm focusing on digital sales, I've colorized each of the few art pieces in the mission, added in John Fell's cool new page borders, and this is the first mission featuring John's great new stat-block borders! Stat-blocks are the little colored blocks that include all the details for NPC's, vehicles, robots, alien lifeforms, and even the hacking grids. I used to highlight these areas in the missions with a grey background color, and more recently, I added a drop-shadow colored border. They didn't look bad, but I wanted something with more character. I've looked at a lot of other RPG game books and was surprised that everyone is doing essentially the same thing I was: different colored backgrounds but no artistic border. So, I contacted artist John Fell and talked with him about my idea—I wasn't sure it was even possible. He sent me a few rough ideas and I experimented with sizing, sending him images of what I was able to do and how much space I needed to make it work. He adjusted the sizes, left the interiors blank so I could add in whatever color background I was happiest with, and then began working on designing the art for each border type.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Enhanced Edition Now Available!

New Update! I've been working on improving the old Solar Echoes missions and have just finished the Enhanced Edition of The Seeds of Chaos. If you've already purchased this mission, you can download it again for free to enjoy the improvements. If you haven't yet tried out this fun, beginning-level mission that involves investigating and stopping malfunctioning, rampaging service robots in a shopping mall, then check out this fun mission!

Friday, September 8, 2017

Story writing: Games and Books (part 5)

Where do the writers for games come from? Often, these writers have already written and published several novels. Game companies seek out and hire established writers, not only because they hope they'll draw from the author's existing fan-base, but also because an already established author is going to have the necessary skills for writing engaging stories. Gamers, especially gamers that enjoy RPG's, demand great stories from their games. They're paying upwards of $60 sometimes for an RPG, and are planning to sink 50+ hours into the game, so a sub-par story is going to earn the game some very bad reviews. Are games the pseudo-books of a new generation? They certainly engage the reader in a dynamic way, allowing the reader to make choices and influence the outcome. Some people that play these kinds of games do so because they want to actually be “doing” something at the same time they're enjoying a story. Books and story-driven games are different and attract a wide range of people, but in the end, a good story can be told in any form. That's great news for writers, because it means that their skills are in even greater demand!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Story writing: Games and Books (part 4)

The difference between a story-heavy RPG and a game genre called a “Visual Novel” is that the RPG involves other elements beyond just making choices between reading segments. Other types of games involve expansive story lines where the gamer passively absorbs story segments which occur at certain intervals, temporarily interrupting actual gameplay. Some games don't bother, though, and just focus on the gameplay without putting much effort into a “story mode.” Interestingly enough, even in games like “Star Wars Battlefront” that are understood to be purely action games, story seems to be an element players demand. The Star Wars Battlefront game that released in 2015 was online multiplayer only, without a single-player story mode. The game was widely criticized for lacking any story, and the developers at EA are making certain that the 2017 version of the game will definitely have a story mode. The very same thing happened with the “Destiny” game, which was considered one of the best first-person shooters with one of the most pathetic and almost non-existent stories. Destiny 2 is due to release soon, and the developers at Bungie are now aggressively advertising that they've taken gamers' complaints very seriously by including an involved story. Not all gamers like to read in their games, but it does seem that most gamers want a good story!

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Story writing: Games and Books (part 3)

Though RPG video games usually require a lot of hours to complete, it's unfair to suggest that a game that takes 100 hours to complete means that 100 hours of writing content goes into it. Games involve a lot of different elements to be successful, including things like combat, crafting, inventory management, puzzle solving, platforming, and exploration, to name a few. Often, these activities can make up the bulk of the time spent playing a game, but each RPG is different. Torment: Tides of Numenera is an RPG that requires a LOT of reading, and it involves some of the most impressive writing I've ever seen in an RPG, with excellent character development and a fantastic, broad, intriguing story. The best part? You play a large part in writing the story when playing the game, because you make choices that lead different directions. After solving RPG's like this, you can always replay them and make totally different choices. Depending on the writing and the game developers, sometimes this can result in entirely different stories unfolding, producing a new experience each time. Remember those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books? It's like those, but infinitely more complex.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Story writing: Games and Books (part 2)

Granted, I've not yet seen a game based on a book, though there might be a few out there. I've seen games based on movies, and maybe there are even games based on movies that are based on books. Regardless, I think that the story experience in video games could possibly be on par with--and in some cases better than--reading an actual novel. At the very least, the stories in some games are usually much more developed than they could be in a 2-hour movie. That's really the shortcoming of movies, when you get down to it—movies just don't have enough time to build characters like books and games do. TV series that last from 12 to 24 episodes (sometimes with multiple seasons) usually do a much better job at character development because they have the length to do so. Consider now that games, especially RPG's, are often expected to last a player anywhere from 20 to 100+ hours to complete. That is an enormous amount of time for developing interesting characters!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Story writing: Games and Books

Last week I talked about some of the positive aspects of the “Tokyo Xanadu” RPG video game. RPG's usually involve very engrossing and expansive stories, and legends like “Final Fantasy 7” leave memories that some of us will remember for the rest of our lives. Those of us that love reading books know that the same is true with a good book—the memories of well-written stories leave us with deep experiences that stay with us. But do the stories in games even compare to full-length novels? Consider, for a moment, what happens to novels when they are made into movies. You always hear people saying that such movies were not as good as the book. We even have a little rule in my family: my daughter is not allowed to see a movie based on a book unless she's read the book first. When “Ender's Game” was due to release in theaters a few years ago, I went out and bought the novel and read it. Once my daughter had read it, I took her to see the movie with me. Although the movie was well-done, it wasn't as good as the book. Based on this, can we assume that a story told in a video game can't really compare with a novel?

Friday, September 1, 2017

Analysis/Review of a new JPRG (part 5)

The last two elements that really make this JRPG work are story and gameplay balance. A good story is a given—any RPG that lacks story is not going to be very successful--players like to lose themselves and become immersed in an involved storyline that has consequence. I’ve seen some games tack on a story to the gameplay, but the gameplay, in my opinion, should proceed from the story. In Tokyo Xanadu, advancing the story through the different gameplay modes feels very natural. For instance, (without spoiling anything!) some of the characters have to go into a mode that involves exploring a dungeon-like maze while dealing with a variety of enemies. Even the combat stays fresh, with the game rewarding you for using the proper elemental attack strategies against each of the enemies, in addition to the variety of attacks you used and how fast you cleared the stage. Each character in your group has an elemental specialization, but you can only take 3 characters into a dungeon, so you need to strategize and choose characters that would be the most helpful, depending on the monster types in each dungeon. But there's more than just combat and walking around for the different types of gameplay: there is a skateboarding mini-game in the park, an option to advance your character’s wisdom by reading books you can find (which further develop the backstory of the game), there’s a strategy card game you can play, and even a fishing game. One review I read about the game criticized the number of different things you can do in the game, but I don’t see how that’s a detriment—you can do what you want during the unlimited “free time” during the game, and advance the story when you’re ready. There’s a lot more that I didn’t mention, but overall, Tokyo Xanadu does so many things right that I can see myself ranking this game among my favorites. This is the kind of game I’ll be playing for a long time, and enjoying every minute of it!

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Analysis/Review of a new JPRG (part 4)

A really big plus in Tokyo Xanadu is the open world and how well developed it is. There are a number of areas to visit, such as a high school (with 8 different areas), a shopping mall, a small-town shopping district with street shops, a shrine, a park, and more. Each area has its own distinct flavor and is populated by people working or roaming around that you can talk with. Most of them will say interesting things that pertain to the story, and some of them will have different lines and conversation, depending on how many times you try to talk with them. RPG’s are all about open world environments—exploring is part of the draw of these games. Yet RPG gameplay can suffer if the areas to explore seem like cookie-cutter modular pieces that have just been thrown together and the option to explore feels more like a chore when you need to traverse environments. Another great aspect of Tokyo Xanadu is that there are a number of items and different equipment that can be found or purchased. I have also been finding materials that are useful for upgrading weapons and armor, so the rewards reaped from battle always feel more exciting. In addition to all the little errands and personal goals you can make for yourself with the items and unlocks, you can also unlock character mini-stories by choosing to spend time with certain characters that periodically have the option, depending on the timing and the story. Although I’d like to get to know everyone, so far I’ve had to be selective because I only have a limited number of “affinity shards”—the currency for being able to initiate these in-depth character conversations.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Analysis/Review of a new JPRG (part 3)

Another aspect of Tokyo Xanadu that I think makes it work is an element I wish I’d see in more RPG’s—a clear navigation system through the quests of the game. It seems simple, and some games do it, but with RPG’s, I think it is especially important that quest progress and objectives are clearly available to the player at all times. Some of the RPG’s I stopped playing had no quest guide, so when I’d pick them up to play again a few days or weeks later, I might have forgotten what I should be doing. I’d spend the next hour searching around, wasting time, trying to figure out where I was supposed to go and what I was supposed to do. If developers could track where people give up on their games (and this technology is now beginning to be used by some), they’d quickly see that the absence of a quest tracker/prompter is what loses a lot of players. 

As I’ve said before in past posts, the PS Vita is my gaming system of choice for RPG’s because I can suspend play by pushing the standby button at any time, and pick up right where I left off without having to worry about finding a save point. But that works only so well if the next time I power up to play, I can see what I was working on and where I need to go. Tokyo Xanadu keeps track of the main quest and the side quests, with prompts in your map showing you were the main quest will take you next and updates to all quests about your progress and what remains to be done. Even better, if you want to mess around in the open world some more, it will always give you the option to do so if you’re on a main story quest, saying, “Are you sure you want to continue with the main story right now? You won’t be able to return to this point after it advances.”

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Analysis/Review of a new JPRG (part 2)

First, I think one of the most important aspects of an RPG is the characters. As with a book or movie, if you don’t like the characters, you’ll lose interest quickly. The characters in Tokyo Xanadu are interesting because they have depth—they’re not just typical cookie-cutter stereotypes that you might often see in Japanese anime, games, or manga. For example, one of the characters is a hacker who thinks himself superior in intellect to his classmates so he doesn’t bother going to school. He’s arrogant and condescending, and rather proud of himself for making it on his own; he’s developed a successful app that has earned him a lot of money—enough to pay for his own apartment in an upper-class area. Yet when something happens to someone he cares about, the hacker quickly realizes he is out of his league and unprepared to deal with the situation. He suddenly finds himself relying on others and admitting that he needs their help. This is just one of the characters, but each one has their own story that can be explored. The game actually catalogues each character you’ll meet—and there are a LOT of them at the main character’s high school. Each archived character has notes detailing what you’ve learned about them so far, with slots for additional information should you learn more over time by interacting with them. So far, I have over 30 different character profiles!

Monday, August 28, 2017

Analysis/Review of a new JPRG

I recently bought a video game for my portable system, the PS Vita. If you looked at my game library, you’d see that at least 50% of the games I own are RPG’s. However, I haven’t finished most of them. This is partly because I lose interest after a while, partly because I buy RPG’s as research, and partly because there’s just something missing that doesn’t keep me coming back for more. This recent purchase, however, has kept me playing, almost every day, and I’m not tiring of it. The game is a JRPG, which stands for “Japanese” Role-Playing Game. There’s a certain style to JPRG’s that appeals to me, but even those don’t usually keep my interest to the end. Yet there’s something about this recent purchase that, so far, has me believing I might be sticking with it for the long haul. I love analyzing games and noting what is working and what isn’t, so I’m going to do just that with this new game, called “Tokyo Xanadu.” What makes this game special?

Tokyo Xanadu cover.jpg

Friday, August 25, 2017

Does Entertainment Keep Us Healthy? (part 5)

If anyone has ever called you a “gamer,” then you probably fit into a category of people that find stress relief when playing games. Perhaps traffic was really awful on the way home from work, so letting off some steam in a single-player action video game can do wonders to release pent-up aggression and calm the nerves. Sitting down on the couch with a family member or meeting a few friends online to play a video game can be a great release, too. If you can gather around a table to play a game with other people, it can be another wonderful way to leave the anxieties and concerns of the world behind. It's almost an unspoken rule among gamers that we don't talk about politics, religion, or any other weighty topics that are sure to evoke a wide range of impassioned responses. Instead, gamers focus on the game, laugh together, and forget the rest of the world and their opinions about it for a few hours. Honestly, I don't think there is anything wrong with that—the world will always be there waiting for you when you're ready to concern yourself with it again.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Does Entertainment Keep Us Healthy? (part 4)

Why is it that people take their method of stress relief so seriously? In Japan and South Korea, after a very long day of intensely focused, hard work, co-workers all go out together and essentially party. It's common in their culture to go out and drink heavily with co-workers, sing together at karaoke/noribang bars, and drink some more before going home to sleep it off. They even have a cab-like service dedicated to ferrying people safely home in their own cars every night. We Americans have our own form of stress relief. Some people use their own unique hobbies to relax them, while others like to use physical activity to release. Physical activity like exercising at a gym, running around the neighborhood, or playing sports with friends is a great meditative relief for some types of people, but others need to release their stress mentally instead of physically. Granted, stress release through physical activity is healthier than sitting in front of a TV, book, smartphone, or computer, but with some people, physical activity is even more mentally draining than the stress they are trying to escape from. Mental escape through entertainment at the end of the day is a way to immerse the mind in something other than reality.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Does Entertainment Keep Us Healthy? (part 3)

Don't get me wrong—it's important to be somewhat aware of world events. We of course need to be compassionate and offer help when we can, pray for those that are suffering, and be aware of dangers so that we can prepare. I still remember my mother calling me when I was in college, asking me if I was ready for Floyd. I asked, “Who's Floyd?” I was so busy studying and was so stressed about school that I was out of touch with the rest of the world and didn't realize a deadly hurricane was headed my way. But on the flip side, I think we can also become far too consumed with the soap opera that is the world we live in. Some of us honestly don't want to know about the latest terrorist attack or disaster somewhere in the world because it depresses us and adds to our stress. We feel a great burden of guilt to have any happiness in life at all, because somewhere, someone is going through extreme suffering. Our stress and concerns are nothing compared to what those victims are going through, so we should deny our own problems and believe that we don't deserve to be happy about anything, right?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Does Entertainment Keep Us Healthy? (part 2)

Work-related stress, the stress associated with school, and the stress that comes from family life is sometimes something we can barely handle on a daily basis. Does it make sense to then park ourselves in front of the TV or smartphone and absorb the “news” to add to our concerns a long list of things happening so far out of our reach that there's literally nothing we can do about it but stress out more? We then feel compelled to talk about it to try and release our stress—to find a sympathetic ear. But how often have you been trying to have a relaxing evening when someone starts talking or texting you articles and their opinions about the horrible things going on in the world? They are probably only trying to release their own stress associated with that information, but it becomes viral, because as soon as you hear about it, the compulsion is often to share it with someone else and try to talk about it with them. Then we all begin to engage in opinionated rants (perhaps like this one?) and rebuild everyone's stress levels until someone pops and says, “I don't want to talk about this anymore!” Or, they just ghost you and never reply to your anxious texts.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Does Entertainment Keep Us Healthy?

Why do we read books, watch movies and TV, and play games so much? Why do we often look forward to these things when we are driving home from work or school? I've been looking online for statistical data about stress relief as related to the entertainment industry, but so far, I haven't found anything. Without studies that I can reference, though, I believe I can present a solid theory with some strong supporting evidence. You might even be able to add your own experience to help support this theory. It's nothing profound and is maybe even rather obvious, but I think our culture—at least here in America—is so stressful and busy that we need entertainment to counter-balance our stress. People from different cultures have different ways to release stress, but here in America, I think we really rely on movies, TV, and games as a form of stress relief. Stress relief from our lives, but also, from the reality of the world. Let's face it: we have far more access to reality than ever before. The internet brought information about the entire world to our computers, but now we can carry it with us everywhere we go with our smartphones. And during any downtime—waiting in line at the store, sitting at home quietly with family on the couch, or even lying awake at night while trying to fall asleep—we have the “go-to” habit of picking up our phone to browse. What's going on in the world? It's a constant barrage of information, with updates sometimes every few minutes. Yet with all this access to information, do we ever stop to wonder if we really should be inundating ourselves with it so constantly? Is it healthy for us to be mentally shouldering all of the cares of the world on a daily basis?

Friday, August 18, 2017

Galactic News Stream Report! (Day 5)

Thanks to our vigilant reporting on Starliner Flight 252, we have been contacted by the ISU and offered a chance to interview one of the agents involved in the ongoing investigation. Our guest is Reln agent Apatilus Nephu. We are including highlights from that interview below.

Q: Why has the ISU gone to such efforts to hide the alien encounter from the public, including an effort to misinform news agencies such as ours?

A: You have to understand that some information involves issues of interstellar security, and we did not want the public jumping to the wrong conclusion when we were still investigating the matter.

Q: Yes, but why create a story blaming a pilot for a navigational error around a flare star when the truth seems to be that the ship was attacked by alien spacecraft?

A: Don't be so quick to insist that this was an attack, or that the spacecraft was even alien. We are still reviewing evidence and it is quite possible that a faction of Omul separatists have developed a new EMP weapon.

Q: If that wasn't an attack then, sir, what was it?

A: Keep in mind that passengers were all recording the encounter, and it is more likely that the supposed EMP pulse was intended to disable their devices rather than to disable the entire starliner.

Q: What about the strange discrepancy regarding time loss? Passengers claimed the ship was only down for several hours, but the starliner pulled in to port 4 entire days late. What happened during those 4 days, and why don't any of the passengers seem aware of the time loss?

A: We're still investigating this, but it is likely that the starliner drifted through a temporal anomaly in the region when it was temporarily off course. This would account for the time loss.

We'd like to thank special agent Apatilus Nephu for his time on our show today, and we will update you with any further developments surrounding the mysterious Starliner Flight 252. Please comment and share your questions and theories!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Galactic News Stream Report! (Day 4)

Despite ISU efforts to contain the situation surrounding Starliner Flight 252, a new development has occurred. One of the passengers aboard the flight withheld video evidence and has anonymously put it online for all to see under the name True252, including statements that Union Guard agents from the ISU were called in to “suppress” the release of this information. The video clearly shows unidentified spacecraft of unknown alien origin flying alongside the starliner, some of them darting in briefly for what seems like an attempt at a closer look. Shortly after the encounter, a pulse of energy engulfed the starliner and all power was shut down. The poster of the video claims that he suspects it was an electromagnetic pulse—an EMP blast—of some kind, and that it appeared that the alien ships were potentially hostile. After the starliner lost power and was adrift in space, the passenger claims that the alien ships appeared to lose interest and departed, though there is no video proof of this because all electronic devices shut down. The passenger states that he decided to remove his device's data card, which he encouraged several other passengers to do. Once the starliner powered up again and eventually reached port, all devices were confiscated by waiting ISU officials. The passengers that had removed their cards, however, were able to hide the data cards. Some of the passengers brought those cards to us, but when we sent the data to be independently verified, we have learned that the ISU confiscated the data and advised our verifier to insist that the videos were fakes. If not for the anonymous posting of one brave passenger, we might never have known the truth! ISU, what are you trying to hide from us?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Galactic News Stream Report! (Day 3)

As the investigation into the events surrounding Flight 252 continues, we must apologize to our followers for what we can only call misinformation. Yesterday we reported that videos of strange purple lights had been seen by some passengers, but we have been notified that these passengers were never on Flight 252. We have attempted to contact the supposed passengers we spoke with yesterday, but none of them have returned any calls. Although we had sent their videos to be independently verified before sharing them with you, we have been informed that all the videos were fakes. The videos are not being released for viewing because they have been deemed fake. We apologize for our error, and assure you that the incident with Flight 252 has been confirmed to be pilot error. The pilot of the starliner did not heed star-data reports and flew the ship within range of the radiated zone surrounding the Ignatius flare star. All passengers are being tested for radiation poisoning, and are being held at an undisclosed location by ISU officials until further notice.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Galactic News Stream Report! (Day 2)

Breaking news: new information has surfaced in the investigation of Epsilon Flight 252, the starliner thought lost until it pulled into port yesterday, 4 days late. The flight log does indicate that the craft was nearing the region of the unstable, high-mass Ignatius flare star, but warnings and adequate route adjustments had already been made before the sudden power failure. Telemetry and positioning data indicates that the flight was not near the star enough to suffer a power failure and communications loss. Several passengers have come forward, under condition of anonymity, to share strange videos they managed to take just before the incident occurred. Odd, purple lights were spotted, moving along the same path as the starliner while darting in closer for brief moments, then quickly resuming their course at a distance. The crew's Science Officer has refused to comment and is not returning calls.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Galactic News Stream Report!

This just in: A starliner bound for the colony on Ourea that was believed lost last week has finally pulled in to port, more than 4 days late. Reports indicate a communications failure, but some passengers have independently confirmed a solar event during the expected two week travel time. According to eyewitnesses, the starliner experienced power loss and was adrift for several hours before power was regained. Emergency life support systems kept everyone alive during the frightening ordeal. The captain later informed the passengers that the starliner had to change course because of the activity of a flare star on their route. It has been confirmed that the star, Ignatius, is now in its final phase. All routes have been altered to avoid the extreme radiation levels--enough, scientists say, to cook all occupants inside any nearby spacecraft. An investigation is underway.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Writing Your Own Solar Echoes Mission (part 5)

I have a few more final tips for mission writing. I highly recommend keeping the GM's narrative sessions short, because players often have short attention spans and they are not very patient when it comes to “story time.” Don't write a book! I usually try to keep things down to one or two paragraphs of narrative if possible, the only exceptions being the mission briefing at the beginning and the mission debriefing/epilogue at the end. Intersperse your narrative with decisions for the players to make. Even a simple “Awareness Check” involves everyone making die rolls with the hope of rolling high so they can determine something helpful for their team. Keep things concise in your writing and don't get overly descriptive—you can do that when you're talking with your players and describing the situation as they're playing. For example, as the players' characters breach a warehouse and see the smugglers, you can quickly describe the smugglers as a group of 5 humans that immediately reach for their assault rifles. Keep things moving and get to the action, but during the action, you can start to fill in the description. For example, a player targets a particular smuggler and as they exchange gunfire, you can describe the smuggler, saying something like, “this human leers at you maliciously as he quickly turns to fire back, his black leather trench coat whirling behind him like a cape.”

I'd also like to add that you need to keep loot and flavor in mind while writing a mission. Players are always excited to discover new weapons, armor, and equipment during their missions, so make sure that they can find a few unusual items. Flavor is a term I use to describe short embellishments of the setting you've created. I hope the mission-writing tips this week have been interesting and useful! I'll end with a short flavor example from the mission, “Egg Drop,” when players finally locate a bar called the “Star Wrangler” that they've been searching for:

As you pass various curio and souvenir shops at the starport, your attention is suddenly captured by a bright, holographic projection. A colorful animation shows a star being captured with a rope and pulled in to another cluster of stars by a Krissethi wearing a ten-gallon cowboy hat. He sits proudly upon the cluster of stars, points right at you, and winks. The words "Star Wrangler" appear for a few moments, and then the animation cycles again.