Announcing Belt Three

Harper Voyager logoI’ve been sitting on this news for a while, but now the press release is out and it’s official:

My first novel, Belt Three, will be published by Harper Voyager in summer 2015.

Belt Three is about the alien machines that destroyed the planets and left humans living in fragile cities in the debris; the space pirate who tries to strike back at them; and the grieving identity thief she kidnaps and forces to help her. It features brain implants, mind-controlled spaceships, solar sails, the social consequences of mass reproductive cloning, memory hacking, religion, doomed love affairs, nuclear missiles, a mad computer, robots that shoot laser beams, and the Remembrance of Clouds.

Belt Three was one of fifteen books that Harper Voyager picked up from their open submissions process in October 2012. It will be released initially as an e-book, with plans to follow it with a short-run paperback.

Nine Worlds and Loncon3

Ugh. Next time there are two conventions within a week of each other I think I might just go to one of them. But Nine Worlds and Loncon3 were both amazing.

NineWorlds2014-Logo-279x300

Nine Worlds was held at the Radisson Edwardian at Heathrow, an opulent, labyrinthine conference hotel that I knew from the 2010 and 2012 Eastercons. Nine Worlds describes itself as a ‘Geekfest’, and gives equal weight to a broad range of geeky subjects, rather than prioritizing sf/fantasy literature like a traditional con. It went out of its way to be inclusive, and that led to an extremely friendly atmosphere. Even though I was on my own most of the time (I had a few friends coming but they were only there for part of the con), I felt more welcome than I had at any previous con. It was also very smoothly run. Half-hour gaps between programme items meant that no one seemed to be hurried and I never had to miss a programme item in order to get something to eat; and there were big tables with free drinking water in the common areas. Small touches like that make a lot of difference.

The Nine Worlds programme items were good. Highlights for me included a discussion on self-promotion for writers with Tom Hunter of the Clarke Award (take-away message: it’s all about Twitter), a panel on privilege and Doctor Who, and a panel on cyborgs and gender which gave me a couple of story ideas.

LONCON3_logo_270w

Loncon3 was the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, and was exhaustingly large. It was my second Worldcon, after Interaction in Glasgow in 2005. In the few ‘traditional’ cons I’ve been to (two Worldcons and three Eastercons), there has been a certain atmosphere of cliqueishness, with a pre-existing fan community of which a newcomer is not automatically a member celebrating its own history and giving itself awards. That was a very small element of this con, though, and didn’t make me feel excluded.

Loncon3 had an amazing variety of panels, of varying quality, but the best of them made me feel like the trip had been worthwhile. (Highlights: a panel on climate change narratives and science fiction; a series of items on interstellar travel; and a panel busting publishing industry myths with some hard numbers.) Most panels were packed, there were often several things I wanted to go to at once, and there were only short breaks between panels, which made it a little overwhelming. The Worldcon also had a number of big events, including a concert by the Worldcon Philharmonic Orchestra formed out of members of several London orchestras (amazing, especially the ‘Song to the Moon’ from Dvořák’s Rusalka, beautifully accompanied by moon landing footage), a stage adaptation of Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates (fun but confusing, as I couldn’t always hear what the actors were saying), and of course the Hugo Awards. I don’t want to write a lot about the awards, but I am utterly delighted that Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice has now picked up every major sf award.

And now I’m home, and I think I need to spend a day unpacking my brain of all the things I saw and heard and learned at the cons – and thinking about what con I will go to next!

Ars Magica

The Ars Magica campaign I’d been running for a year and a half came to an end the other day. It’s been an interesting experience and I thought I’d share some thoughts about the game.

Ars Magica is a game about wizards in a fantasy version of mediaeval Europe. It has a detailed and flexible magic system, in which the expectation is that PC wizards will invent their own spells rather than learning from a list.

I’d never experienced Ars Magica as a player before I ran it, and I think that led me to make some mistakes when starting the game. I thought that the magic system’s flexibility would mean that I could run it as a rules-light game, where players would tell me what they wanted to do and I’d do the number-crunching for them. In practice that led to me taking an overwhelming amount of complexity, and led to unintuitive results for players who didn’t see the workings of the system themselves. I now think that Ars Magica works better when all the players are engaged with the complexity of the system.

For those who enjoy engaging with it, I think the complexity of the magic system contributes to the mood of the game. It’s a game about being a wizard of the type who spends months in magical study, and the fact that you as a player are trying to learn and understand the complex magic system does make you feel like such a wizard. A certain amount of min-maxing is even appropriate in-character: you as a player want to make the best spell you can given the magic system, which is exactly what your wizard character wants to do.

Even so, the system is still a little too unwieldy in my opinion. There are a lot of rules that make perfect sense when you read the rulebook through, and lead to elegant results, but are a pain to actually play. Inventing new spells is fun to do when there’s no pressure, but the spontaneous magic system requires you to do it on the fly during the game, which can lead to play grinding to a halt at dramatic moments. Rarely is everything you might need for a particular scene all in the same section of the book, so running the game without having memorised the system involves a lot of flicking back and forth. Down-time activities (in which wizards study, invent spells etc. between adventures) take up a lot of time if done live and are best done by email between game sessions.

Another problem with the system is that it has rules that push players towards roleplaying a particular kind of wizard, in a way that’s at odds with the flexibility that’s one of the system’s selling points. Specifically:

  • People can only become wizards if they are born with the Gift. A side-effect of the Gift makes other people react negatively to Gifted individuals. There are pages in the core book detailing how encounters between e.g. magi and innkeepers should go, due to the social effects of the Gift.
  • Religious belief generates a supernatural aura which strongly inhibits magic. This means that it is difficult to use magic in inhabited areas, since nearly everyone the setting is religious.
  • The Order of Hermes (to which all PC magi belong) forbids its members from interfering with the mundanes.

That’s three different system elements pushing groups to roleplay wizards in a particular way: as outsiders living in the wilderness at the edge of society, interacting with normal society via non-Gifted proxies.

The way that Ars Magica pushes players towards a particular style of roleplaying through the mechanics of its magic system has got me thinking about how magic systems can be used for this purpose. More on that in a future post, possibly.

The fact that the setting is ‘mediaeval Europe but with magic’, rather than a mediaeval European style fantasy world, also had an interesting psychological effect on me. I couldn’t resist trying to make the setting historically accurate; if I suspected I was getting something wrong, it harmed my enjoyment of the game. I read up on mediaeval history, which was enjoyable and worthwhile reading in itself, but which may have interfered with the fun for the players, who were expecting the setting to conform to the usual (actually highly anachronistic) fantasy fiction tropes. If the setting had been a mediaeval-themed secondary world, I would have accepted those anachronistic tropes more easily and been able to run the game more smoothly.

Ars Magica remains the most enjoyable RPG I’ve experienced just as reading material. The system, as experienced when reading it in the books, does feel elegant, and the background material is interesting. Several of the books can also be read as general-readership history books, if you strip out the supernatural and game elements.

In conclusion: Ars Magica is an awkward, but interesting and enjoyable game, to be recommended if the whole group knows what it’s letting itself in for.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

I’ve just finished Valiant Hearts: The Great War on the PS3, and it’s the best new game in a while. As a puzzle game it’s very good but not perfect, but it’s the game’s narrative approach to its subject matter that’s made me want to bring this blog out of hiatus to talk about it.

Valiant Hearts is set in the First World War; or, rather, since it’s a puzzle game, it’s set in cartoony version of the First World War in which both armies lock vital equipment behind elaborate lever/pulley mechanisms for no particular reason. For all its cartoonishness, though, it treats the subject matter with more respect than games that reduce war to endless repetition of the act of shooting.

For a start, fewer than half of Valiant Hearts’ levels take place during battles. We see towns (in various stages of ruin as the game progresses), countryside, and a prisoner of war camp. The excellent passages of historical information available from a pause menu illuminate various aspects of the period, as does the selection of historical objects that form the game’s collectibles.

VH_SC_7_Thumbnail_Comeback _Trailer_148639

More interesting is the way the game sets up its conflict and ultimate antagonist. The first character introduced is a German farmer living in France and married to a French woman. War is declared, and he’s deported to Germany and conscripted into the German army. Immediately afterwards we see  his father-in-law conscripted into the French army, and the father-in-law’s basic training forms the game’s tutorial. This set-up forces the player to abandon their tendency (trained into them by most depictions of war, especially games) to see one side of the conflict as the good guys and the other as the bad guys. The enemy isn’t the Germans: the enemy is the war.

There’s also the moustache-twirlingly nefarious Baron von Dorf, but he always felt like a secondary villain: a necessary antagonist for the four characters’ personal stories, through which the overall story of individuals against the war was told. Because the player characters specifically have a conflict with the Baron, it doesn’t feel like they have a conflict with the German nation as a whole, and many other German characters encountered in the game come across as sympathetic.

I’d like to see more games take Valiant Hearts’ war-as-the-enemy approach with other wars (both historical and fictional). The Second World War is normally seen as more clear-cut, with Nazi ideology unambiguously evil, but there’s still a lot of scope for sympathetic characters who found themselves on the wrong side of national boundaries when the war began. It’s harder to imagine games taking the same approach with more recent historical wars, in which American troops are shipped half way across the world to fight a visually and culturally distinct Other with whom the soldiers have had no friendly contact; but perhaps this very difficulty means it’s more important for art to help us see the other side of the conflicts as human.

Valiant Hearts has been released close to the centenary of the start of the First World War. I hope it doesn’t take a hundred years for games to depict more recent wars in a similarly balanced light.

 

Quantum Conundrum

My initial impression of Quantum Conundrum was, it’s not Portal. I mean, it’s really Not Portal: it invites comparison with Portal at falls short. I’m mostly interested in games as a storytelling medium, and I think it’s interesting to compare QC with Portal in that area, because they’re trying to do very similar things but QC is (in my opinion) failing where Portal gloriously succeeded.

(Story and ending spoilers for both Quantum Conundrum and Portal below. If you haven’t finished Quantum Conundrum, now’s your chance. If you haven’t finished Portal, why the hell not? Go play it now!)

Quantum Conundrum shares most of its major story elements with Portal:

  • A lone, voiceless, largely blank-slate player character
  • A confusing, repetitive, artificial environment which they are trapped in and must navigate
  • Early on, the PC acquires a device, native to the environment, that lets them manipulate physics
  • Only one other real character, who features only as a voice until the very end of the game
  • Some repeated puzzle elements are given anthopomorphic personalities, although they aren’t fully-fledged characters in their own right (turrets in Portal, DOLLIs in Quantum Conundrum)
  • A ‘mascot’ character (the companion cube in Portal, Ike in QC)
  • SCIENCE! as an excuse for puzzles
  • A central mystery (what happened to Professor Quadwrangle in QC, what is going on in Portal)
  • Late in the game, when the player appears to have solved the problems, a plot twist reveals a different problem to be solved, and the PC must travel ‘backstage’ into the innards of the environment
  • In the final sequence, the player is led to do something which turns out to be the wrong thing to do (destroy a personality core in Portal, fix the big IDS in QC)

There may be some I’ve missed. It would be going to far to say that the stories of QC and Portal are the same, but they have a lot in common, far more than is required by their similar game design.

So, where did QC fall down? Here are some things I think it got wrong, which Portal avoided:

No antagonist

Portal managed to make GLaDOS into both guide and antagonist. In QC, however, the Professor is just a guide, and the obstacles are impersonal. A story about fixing the consequences of an accident is generally less exciting than one about defeating an enemy; that’s why films about natural disasters have to work so hard to make the audience care about the characters.

Initial plot thread left hanging

QC starts with a cutscene telling us that Professor Quadwrangle was sent to live in the mansion by his sister. The sister is mentioned a couple more times in his voiceover, but never becomes important, leaving me wondering what the point of introducing her was. If the only mentions of the sister had been throw-away references in the middle of the game, she would just have been a nice detail, like the other relatives the Professor mentions; but her prominence in the opening cutscene turns her into a plot thread that didn’t get resolved, making the game’s overall structure feel weak. (To be honest, I don’t think the opening cutscene added anything important and the easiest way to improve the game would be to remove it.)

I initially wondered if the sister would be the antagonist, but apparently not. Maybe the idea is for her to appear in a sequel, but a game story has to work on the level of a single game, not just over a series.

The mystery is spelled out…

Early on in QC, the Professor’s voiceover tells you that he’s trapped in some strange dimension, that there’s been an accident, and that he’s lost his memory of what happened. It’s effectively instructing the player, “This is the mystery: wonder about this!” Every so often the Professor drip-feeds me some new information about where he is or how his memory is returning. The result of this is that, rather than trying to work out the answer to the problem, I just filed it away, knowing that the game would drip-feed me the solution in good time. Portal, on the other hand, just put me in an environment and didn’t explain what was going on, leaving me to actively wonder.

…and so is the resolution.

In the final sequence of QC, the Professor’s memory suddenly returns and he tells you the answer to the mystery the game posed at the start. Portal gives me hints, increasing in frequency towards the end of the game, but expects me to put them together by myself, and even then doesn’t answer everything. And the end of Portal I know enough for the story to be satisfying, but there are still many things it leaves me guessing about.

The resolution is based on arbitrary made-up science

OK, if I understand it correctly, the resolution of QC is as follows. Just before you arrived, the Professor’s experiment went wrong because he got too much Science Juice in the master IDS, which caused it to become unstable. Safety features trapped him in a pocket dimension and shut down the power to the mansion, and he also lost his memory for some reason. Not knowing any better (because of the memory loss), he guides the player character to restart the power and then reactivate the master IDS.

All the cause and effect here is based on the way the made-up technology works, and the way the technology works is arbitrary. It’s like a murder mystery which doesn’t even pretend to have enough clues: there’s no satisfying “I knew it!/I should have known it!” – just a dull “Oh, right.”

But the story itself isn’t resolved

The initial mystery of QC is answered at the end, but the plot is left hanging. The problem with the master IDS is re-established; the PC ends up in the pocket dimension and the Professor is free. The story is left incomplete in an unsatisfying way. It looks like it wants a sequel, but it could have set up a sequel while also bringing the story to its own satisfying conclusion.

*

Quantum Conundrum is not a bad game. It has flaws because it’s a good game, and the puzzles are fun. This post has been about looking at the game’s story rather than passing judgement on other aspects of it.

QC is primarily a puzzle-based game rather than a story-driven one–so aren’t I missing the point by criticising its story? I don’t think so, because if it wanted to be a pure puzzle-based game it didn’t need to have as much story as it had. If story isn’t the point then “Here’s a maze, run in it” is a perfectly good premise for a game. The way to fail at game story is not to have too little, but to have more than your game needs and not do interesting things with it.

Playing as intended vs playing to win

I don’t normally follow sport, but I must admit that I’m finding some of the Olympics kind of gripping. There’s a lot invested on the outcome of a contest, and the outcome is genuinely in doubt in a way it never can be in fiction. But anyway:

Some Olympic badminton players were disqualified after deliberately throwing matches in order to manipulate which team they would face in the next round.

There’s a games design lesson here, and it is this: players will play a game in order to maximise rewards, not necessarily how you intend them to play. If you want them to play in a certain way, you should design the game such that that’s the way that will get players best results.

These badminton players weren’t really throwing the game, because at the Olympics the game is the overall tournament with medals dangling at the end. What they were doing was more like a chess player sacrificing a piece in order to gain a positional advantage. (Yes, I’m using a chess metaphor rather than a sporting one because I know next to nothing about sport.) If you start disqualifying them for that, the game becomes one of throwing the match without being caught doing so. If you want them to genuinely play for win in each match, you’ve got to design the system such that it’s always in their best interests to do so.

This is something I’ve seen a couple of times in my own games design. Most often it’s when you’ve got something that’s intended as a player-vs-player minigame, but which gives a reward to the winners. Players will work together to maximise the total wealth gain and spread it out evenly between them, completing games as quickly as possible and taking turns to win and lose. A PvP minigame effectively becomes a co-operative player-vs-environment minigame.

(This only applies to games where a prize is newly created wealth being given to the winner. In a zero-sum game where the only prize is wealth transferred to the winner from the loser, this doesn’t apply; if these zero-sum games get abused it’s as a wealth transfer mechanism for real-world trading, which is a separate issue.)

To use another chess metaphor, it’s as if tournament organisers gave out a prize every time someone won a game, so players took turns to put each other in Fool’s Mate as quickly as possible. Human tournament organisers would notice this, of course, but attempts to police it might just lead to players throwing games in more subtle ways. To properly get rid of the problem they’d need to change the mechanism by which prizes were given out.

Overall, players play a game for enjoyment, but while they’re in the game they’re choosing their actions in order to maximise in-game rewards. That might mean they’ll be playing the game in way the designer didn’t intend, and that often means the players (and spectators, in the case of something like badminton) are enjoying the game less. If you want them to play the game as intended, you have to make sure that that’s also the way for them to maximise their rewards.