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.

 

 

The Lies of Locke Lamora read-along: week 5

Final set of Locke Lamora questions, these ones supplied by Lynn’s book blog.

I’m writing this in my hotel room at Eastercon. The read-along exercise has been great and I want to thank everyone who organised it. Sorry I haven’t commented on other people’s answers–I’ve been quite busy and have had trouble reading the book on schedule. I am a bad person. :(

Anyway, my answers:

1.       The Thorn of Camorr is renowned – he can beat anyone in a fight and he steals from the rich to give to the poor.  Except of course that clearly most of the myths surrounding him are based on fantasy and not fact.  Now that the book is finished how do you feel the man himself compares to his legend.  Did you feel that he changed as the story progressed and, if so, how did this make you feel about him by the time the conclusion was reached?

Well, the Thorn was never a legend that Locke tried to live up to; he was a persona that Locke found it useful to promote. It’s a nice bit of symmetry that the other major players have similar personae in the Grey King, and the Spider. It’s a duel of masks where everyone’s trying to out-deceive one another.

Does Locke change as the story progresses? Yes, and mostly through the tragedies he suffers. When Calo, Galdo and Bug are killed, Locke becomes focused on revenge with a single-mindedness that he never brought to bear on his pursuit of wealth. The book ends just after he achieves that revenge, but I can’t imagine he’ll go back to his previous good-humoured personality entirely.

I think the events also forced him to become more moral. In the early Locke-as-child scenes we know he caused someone’s death, as a side-effect of a poorly-thought-out scheme. Throughout the adult-Locke parts of the book, but especially in the final act, he is very careful to avoid endangering innocents even when he steals their money. He goes back to rescue the waiter whose costume he stole, risking the success of his plan; and then he risks his life to go back and save the nobles from the Wraithstone bombs. At the end that’s the contrast between him and the Grey King.

2.       Scott Lynch certainly likes to give his leading ladies some entertaining and strong roles to play.  We have the Berangia sisters – and I definitely wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of them or their blades plus Dona Vorchenza who is the Spider and played a very cool character – even play acting to catch the Thorn.  How did you feel about the treatment the sisters and Dona received at the hands of Jean and Locke – were you surprised, did it seem out of character at all or justified?

In the early part of the book I was actually bothered by the apparent lack of female characters. The five Gentlemen Bastards were all, well, gentlemen; the only Lady Bastard (if that’s the correct term) was a prominent absence whose only trait appeared to be being Locke’s idealised love interest. The Berangia sisters initially look like a background detail (a well-placed one, because they stuck in my memory without looking like they would obviously be important later); Nazca was, again, defined primarily be being a potential partner for Locke; and Dona Salvara was just there to be married to Don Salvara. It was only when we got to the last 1/3 or so of the book that we met Dona Vorchenza, and the Berangia Sisters and Dona Salvara came into their own as characters. So I’m happier with the book by the end than I thought I would be, but it would still have been nice to have a major female character from the start.

As for the treatment the Berangia sisters got from Jean, I thought that was a great fight scene that didn’t make a fuss of the genders of the participants, which was just right. It was clearly a life-or-death, him-or-them fight scene, and it’s not out of character for Jean to want to win that fight rather than die!

3.       Towards the end we saw a little more of the magic and the history of the Bondsmagi.  The magic, particularly with the use of true names, reminds me a little of old fashioned witchcraft or even voodoo.  But, more than that I was fascinated after reading the interlude headed ‘The Throne in Ashes’ about the Elderglass and the Elders and why their structures were able to survive even against the full might of the Bondsmagi – do you have any theories about this do you think it’s based on one of our ancient civilisations or maybe similar to a myth??

I don’t think the book has given enough information to form a sensible theory. We know magic (or at least alchemy, which I’m treating as a branch of magic) is used kind of like technology in this world, and the Elderglass is ‘sufficiently advanced technology’ in the sense of Clarke’s law. I think it’s nice that even though the present-day human setting of the story is clearly based on real-world Venice, the Elder civilisation isn’t ripped off from a real-world culture or myth. Why should they resemble anything from the real world? They’re aliens. And their ruins don’t have elaborate curses or traps or messages left to future generations: their builders didn’t care enough about humans to leave messages. They’re just big and dumb and fireproof.

4.       We have previously discussed Scott Lynch’s use of description and whether it’s too much or just spot on.  Having got into the last quarter of the book where the level of tension was seriously cranked up – did you still find, the breaks for interludes and the descriptions useful or, under the circumstances did it feel more like a distraction?

The description was just right. Some of the later interludes (after the main child-Locke story had been concluded) felt a bit unnecessary, as if they were just there for the sake of having an interlude at the end of each chapter whether there needed to be one or not.

5.       Now that the book has finished how did you feel about the conclusion and the eventual reveal about the Grey King and more to the point the motivations he declared for such revenge – does it seem credible, were you expecting much worse or something completely different altogether?

It’s credible. That kind of obsessive, long-planned campaign of revenge is an extreme thing to do, but not unbelievably so.

6.       Were you surprised that Locke, being given two possible choices (one of which could possibly mean he would miss his chance for revenge on the Grey King) chose to go back to the Tower  – especially given that (1) he would have difficulty in getting into the building (2) he would have difficulty in convincing them about the situation and (3) he would have difficulty in remaining free afterwards? Did anyone else nearly pee their pants when Locke and the rest were carrying the sculptures up to the roof garden?

No, because what kind of an ending would it have been if he hadn’t? He kills the Grey King and then in the background there’s a white explosion from the top of the tower as all the dukes get Gentled. When the sculptures are first mentioned during Locke’s first visit to the tower, the description practically shouts “these will be important later!” so from that point I was expecting them to be bombs or something similar, and for Locke to have to get rid of them.

I actually found the scene where the sculptures were disposed of to be lacking in the tension I’d expected. Locke spends some time convincing them, and then they see the problem, what will they do? and then someone points out the solution right away. Oh–Wraithstone can be negated by putting it in water, and we happen to have some water within reach. I don’t remember that cistern in the roof garden being set up previously, so it felt like a solution that came out of nowhere. Perhaps it could have been more exciting if I’d had a sense of coming closer to disaster–numbers ticking down on the bomb, or some fantasy equivalent.

7.       Finally, the other question I would chuck in here is that, following the end of the book I was intrigued to check out some of the reviews of LOLL and noticed that the negative reviews mentioned the use of profanity.  How did you feel about this – was it excessive? Just enough? Not enough?

Excessive? Fuck off. It’s used heavily right from the start, so someone knows what they’re getting in to from a casual look at the book. It’s used very well, and used only where you’d expect it to be used.

8.       Okay one further, and probably most important but very quick question – having finished, will you pick up the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies?

I don’t know. Lies was good but I have a whole lot of other books on my to-read pile and I want to read widely, so I’ll probably give it a miss for now.

Eastercon

Tomorrow I’m heading off to Eastercon! I’ve always had a great time at Eastercons in the past so I’m looking forward to it greatly.

This year I’m going to be on my first ever convention panel, on ‘Can videogames tell a good story?’. I am somewhat nervous. If you can’t make it, my argument is basically going to be ‘Yes’. (Though I have been jotting down some ideas for things I could say besides that.)

The Lies of Locke Lamora read-along: week 4

Here are my answers to this week’s discussion questions on The Lies of Locke Lamora. Questions this week provided by @ohthatashley at SF Signal.

1.      In the chapter “A Curious Tale for Countess Amberglass” we learn of the tradition of the night tea in Camorr. I found that not so much fantastical as realistic – how about you?

I don’t think something has to be either fantastic or realistic. It’s not fantastic in the sense that it doesn’t rely on anything supernatural; it is fantastic in that it’s part of an invented culture rather than part of a real one; but it’s also realistic, in the sense that it’s a very believable part of the invented culture. With things like this, realism and good fantasy go hand in hand.

2.      When Jean meets with what will become the Wicked Sisters for the first time, the meeting is described very much like how people feel when they find their true work or home. Agree? Disagree? Some of both?

Agree. And it’s cute, but it’s also kind of disappointing how predictably some of the flashbacks set up the present-day situation.

3.      Salt devils. Bug. Jean. The description is intense. Do you find that description a help in visualizing the scene? Do you find yourself wishing the description was occasionally – well – a little less descriptive?

Not at all. I thought there was just the right level of description in this scene.  I had a clear sense of place but I never felt the action was slowing down in order for elaborate descriptions to be fitted in.

4.      This section has so much action in it, it’s hard to find a place to pause. But…but.. oh, Locke. Oh, Jean. On their return to the House of Perelandro, their world is turned upside down. Did you see it coming?

No. I wish I had! In last week’s answers I naively said that Locke’s ordeal of being left to drown in a barrel of horse urine could be the book’s lowest point. It looks like I spoke too soon! In hindsight, the urine barrel ordeal wouldn’t be an effective lowest point because it doesn’t change enough: it’s the sort of thing which Locke could survive and not be changed by. The deaths of Locke’s friends and the destruction of the group’s hideout have to change Locke, and he changes visibly. And hot on its heels is the change in the city’s overall status quo, which is an additional shock.

I also love the way that the Don Salvara game is finally tied into the Grey King plot, in a way that makes it much more urgent. Locke’s got to complete the Don Salvara game, as before, but this time with fewer resources and more urgency, as it’s his only source of money.

5.      Tavrin Callas’s service to the House of Aza Guilla is recalled at an opportune moment, and may have something to do with saving a life or three. Do you believe Chains knew what he set in motion? Why or why not?

I don’t think Chains foresaw things in that much detail. I think he was doing what he said he was doing: giving the Bastards skills that might come in useful in many different future scenarios.

6.      As Locke and Jean prepare for Capa Raza, Dona Vorchenza’s remark that the Thorn of Camorr has never been violent – only greedy and resorting to trickery – comes to mind again. Will this pattern continue?

I think so, and I think it’ll be to Locke’s eventual advantage. Notice how he takes time to help the waiter he took advantage of escape, rather than leave him to Merragio’s justice. I suspect his record of non-violence will win him someone’s trust or friendship at some point in the future.

7.      Does Locke Lamora or the Thorn of Camorr enter Meraggio’s Countinghouse that day? Is there a difference?

It was Locke, not the Thorn. The Thorn of Camorr is a dashing swordsman who can walk through walls, who robs from the rich and gives to the poor, isn’t he? He’s a persona that Locke can use to his advantage, but he doesn’t use this persona at any point during the (ridiculously entertaining) Meraggio’s sequence. Unless you’re going to argue that the recent events have meant the death of Locke Lamora and the character is now the Thorn–but that’s not how the book presents it. It looks like Locke still thinks of himself as Locke.

Multiplayer vs immersion, and Journey

The other day I played a game that did something I wasn’t sure was possible: let me interact with other players without breaking my immersion with the game’s story.

That game is Journey by thatgamecompany, downloadable on the PS3. It places your avatar in a beautiful, wordless landscape and challenges them to reach a mountain they can see in the distance. Soon you begin running into other avatars like your own–these are other players playing the game.

I’ve previously found that any interaction with other players breaks story immersion for me. This isn’t necessarily bad, of course–there are ways to appreciate a game other than being fully immersed in its story–but story immersion is one of the things that I look for as a gamer, and I’ve never been able to get it from multiplayer games. If a game has a story at all, it feels entirely separate from the actions of the other players: I’m interacting with them as other players playing the game, rather than as people who inhabit the world, and that means I’m conscious that it is a game, so I can’t lose myself in the same way that I can in a single-player game.

Before now, the multiplayer game that’s come closest to immersing me in its story is Left 4 Dead. The other players’ avatars still don’t move in natural ways, and my communication with them over voice chat is obviously still out of character, but the game goes to lengths to preserve its ‘in-character’ story despite that. The game characters have automatic in-character dialogue in addition to what the players say, and all the in-game actions make sense from a thematic and in-story point of view.

Journey succeeds on a whole extra level, though, and it does this by removing all out-of-character means of communication, and drastically limiting the selection of actions a player can take. I can run around, fly in a limited way, and ‘sing’, which both alerts the other player to where I am and also activates certain game objects. This ‘singing’ helps players to stay together (which is useful but not essential) and provides as much communication as is really needed to overcome the game’s fairly simple puzzles.

The result is that I didn’t experience any in-character/out-of-character disjoint while playing Journey. The other character, my little avatar’s travelling companion, was all I needed to think about; I wasn’t pulled out of the story by being reminded of the player holding that character’s controller.

Perhaps this is an antisocial way to enjoy a multiplayer experience! But I did enjoy it, more than I do most multiplayer games, and also more than I would have if the travelling companion had been an AI character. Even if it had been a very sophisticated AI, there’s something about knowing you’re travelling with another player that makes the game more special.

Journey has proven for me that multiplayer games need not break story immersion. This limited approach to multiplayer interaction is far from the only good way of doing multiplayer, but it’s a way I hope more games will explore.