Monday, September 24, 2012

20 Video Games With Great Writing (Part Two)

For most people, when you call examples of great writing to mind, most likely the first thing you think of is your favorite book. If you're the movie loving type, perhaps you think of an awesome piece of cinema that really got to you. But for one reason or another, most people probably don't think of video games.

Unfortunately, there's still a decently sized contingent of people in the world that think games are for children and slackers. Not only is this a misconception (the age of the average gamer in the United States took a big drop this year—to thirty), but video games offer a unique method of storytelling that simply doesn't exist in other forms of art. How many books have you read that made you feel like the accomplishments and failings of the protagonist were yours? How many movies have you seen that let you shape the unfolding story with your own choices? The simple truth is that games have grown into an excellent medium for great stories, and the industry has become home to some awesome writers.

Last week, I kicked off the countdown of my twenty favorite examples of great writing in video games. Today, we make our way through the top ten. If you think games are for the artless and the immature, you may want to give these a try. They might just change your mind.

10) I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream

Based on the Hugo Award winning Harlan Ellison short story of the same name, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is a 1995 point-and-click adventure game of post-apocalyptic psychological horror.

Taking place a hundred years after the end of the world as we know it, players take control of the last five human beings on Earth, who are being tortured and toyed with by the supercomputer that orchestrated the apocalypse (voiced by Ellison himself). Though dark and at times gruesome, the writing has all the touches of the acclaimed author that co-designed it with The Dreamers Guild. You really don't see many games like this one anymore.

9) The Uncharted Series

In 2007, vaunted developer Naughty Dog chose to move away from the platform games they were known for with the release of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. Not being a huge fan of third-person shooters, I was largely unimpressed when I first heard about the game. Then I played it and fell in love.

The Uncharted series is the Indiana Jones reboot you never knew you needed. No game that I've played has done a better job at capturing sheer cinematic atmosphere. Every game in the series feels like an interactive action movie, and I'd match the story, characters, and dialogue against any summer blockbuster.

8) Red Dead Redemption

Westerns have long been an elusive genre in the video game world. There have been many attempts over the years, some better than others, but for the longest time it felt like we never got that gunslinger we were waiting for. Then, in 2010, Red Dead Redemption came along.

Published by Rockstar as the spiritual successor to an earlier attempt at the genre, Red Dead Redemption tells the story of John Marston, a reformed outlaw forced by the government to hunt down members of the gang he used to run with. With compelling characters, an emotional ending, and a thematic commentary on the end of the old west, RDR does nearly everything right.

7) The Assassin's Creed Series

The Assassin's Creed franchise has become something of a Thanksgiving ritual in my household since its first release in November of 2007. Developed by Ubisoft, the series manages to reach my inner science-fiction nerd, fantasy geek, and history buff all in one fell swoop.

Its story revolves around a clandestine power struggle that's lasted thousands of years, intertwined with world history. Players control Desmond Miles and his ancestors as he explores his genetic memory, mucking about Forrest Gump style in the Third Crusade, the Italian Renaissance, and the American Revolutionary War (though Gump never stabbed any major historical figures in the neck).

6) The Monkey Island Series

First released by Lucasarts in 1990, the Monkey Island series is beloved of graphic adventure game fans everywhere. The third game in the series, The Curse of Monkey Island, may very well represent the pinnacle of comedic adventure games, in my humble opinion.

Players accompany Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate™ during his continuous struggles against the dread (ghost zombie demon) pirate Lechuck. The series is filled with unforgettable characters, hilarious moments, and more quotable quips than you can shake a rubber-chicken-with-a-pulley-in-the-middle at.

5) The Elder Scrolls Series

Go ahead. Say it. Last year, Bethesda released Skyrim, the much heralded fifth chapter of The Elder Scrolls. It shot to the top of the charts on consoles and PCs, becoming the fastest selling game in the history of Steam.

Since the release of Arena in 1994, the series has grown quite the reputation, and an enormous part of its charm is the writing. Bethesda has crafted an enchanting world of epic fantasy, weaving the kind of stories you might expect to find in a novel. In fact, every book in the game is a readable text, filling players in on the history of Tamriel. Few games have presented this level of worldbuilding and attention to detail, and The Elder Scrolls shines as a result.

4) Every Bioware RPG Ever Made

I know what you're thinking. That's cheating, right? But the bottom line is that this list would be dominated by Bioware games if I gave each of them their own spot, and I wanted to let some other games shine in their own right.

Since Baldur's Gate in 1998, Bioware has become an RPG powerhouse. Whether toiling on licensed properties like Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic, or crafting worlds of their own design in games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, Bioware is a company built on the backs of master storytellers. While the occasional hiccup may occur, you almost always know you're going to get great writing in a game with their logo on it.

3) BioShock

In 2007, Irrational Games introduced us to Rapture, the fathoms-deep laissez-faire dystopia at the heart of BioShock. A spiritual successor to System Shock, this RPG/Shooter hybrid received nearly universal acclaim.

Players are cast into the role of Jack, who stumbles upon the entrance to Rapture after surviving a plane crash over the Atlantic ocean. Players learn the disconcerting history of the failed utopia as they explore its ruined remains and encounter what's left of its inhabitants. Inspired by Randian philosophy and the works of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, BioShock is the kind of game that asks you to think about more than just which gun to fire.

2) Planescape: Torment

If this were a list of games that deserved more attention from consumers when they were released, Planescape: Torment may very well have been one spot higher.

Released by Black Isle Studios in 1999, Planescape was notable for focusing on story above all else, putting hack n' slash combat on the back burner in favor of an estimated 800,000 word narrative. Players become The Nameless One, an immortal character with no memory, forced to piece together the events of past lives in an effort to break the curse he is plagued with. One of the first RPGs to challenge traditional moral conventions, Planescape: Torment is one of a kind. And that's a shame.

1) The Portal Series

In 2007, Valve Corporation released a discount bundle package for game consoles and PCs called The Orange Box. The centerpiece of the bundle was a new installment in its flagship franchise, Half-Life 2: Episode Two, which they were counting on to carry sales.

However, they also included an unassuming title originally based on the senior class project from a group of students at DigiPen (who Valve hired right after graduation) called Portal. Minds were subsequently blown, and that surprising little game went on to win several game of the year awards, despite its short length and lack of hype prior to release.

Portal has a very long list of good things going for it, including an innovative form of gameplay that mixes elements of the adventure, puzzle, and first-person action genres. This perfect blend undoubtedly helped in its attainment of left-field success, but its most charming quality was the fantastic writing.

Players find themselves behind the eyes of Chell, an unfortunate test subject who wakes up in the Aperture Science research labs. She is greeted by GLaDOS, the artificial intelligence in control of the facility, who forces her to undergo experiments to test Aperture's new handheld portal device. And its this menacing AI that steals the show and wins the hearts of just about anyone that plays this game. Chell is a silent protagonist, so there is technically no dialogue in the game (in the strict sense of the word). However, that doesn't stop GLaDOS from making her presence known at all times, delivering instructions at the start of each test with some of the most cleverly written lines in the history of video games. And who can forget that performance at the end?

In 2011, after much clamoring and slavering from fans, Valve finally released Portal 2. The sequel not only met fan and critic expectations, it exceeded them by a mile, adding new elements to the gameplay, multiplayer modes, and of course, a compelling story. The writing in Portal 2 was even better than its predecessor, widely expanding the lore of Aperture Science and its strange history. It added memorable new characters and heaps more of the same hilarious charm fans fell in love with in the first game. In my humble opinion, Portal 2 is the absolute best example of excellent writing in video games to date, with the first game right behind it.

And so, the Portal series gets the number one crown in my countdown. If you haven't played those two games and you have even the smallest, most remote desire to engage in video gamedom at some point in your life, please do. You will thank me for it.

Honorable Mentions: Braid, The Longest Journey, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, The Sam & Max Series, Kingdoms of Amalur, The Mother Series (Earthbound), The Legend of Zelda Series, Bastion, The Grand Theft Auto Series, Chrono Trigger, Psychonauts, The Final Fantasy Series, Heavy Rain

So there you have it. Alas, I am but a man, and I can not possibly have played every great game ever made. So, if you think I missed something or you disagree with the way I have things ranked, by all means leave a comment and let me know.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

20 Video Games With Great Writing (Part One)

As I've mentioned here once before, video games have been a lifelong hobby of mine. Ever since I first wrapped my fingers around an Atari 2600 joystick, I've been obsessed and engrossed by this digital art form. And through the years, one thing has remained constant in my love affair with gamedom: the games that I love most have always been the ones that tell the best stories.

In my opinion, video games are a vastly underappreciated avenue for storytelling. The best game experiences are like interactive movies and novels, thrusting players into the role of the protagonist and tasking them with the resolution of the plot. In some cases, players are even given the opportunity to shape the story themselves via the choices they make along the way. This unique aspect of the medium has given writers who toil on the digital playground the opportunity to craft some truly memorable experiences. So in this entry and the next, I'm going to be counting down the top twenty games (and game franchises) that I believe exhibit the best examples of great writing in video games.

20) Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines

Developed by Troika Games (a now defunct company founded by former members of the team responsible for the first two Fallout games), Bloodlines is a first-person role-playing game set in White Wolf's World of Darkness.

While the game flew largely under the radar when it was released in 2004, it has since garnered a respectable cult following, due in no small part to its compelling storyline and unique cast of characters. The player takes on the role of a freshly sired vamp, thrust unwillingly into the feudal politics of the vampire clans. The writing perfectly captures the feel of White Wolf's popular tabletop RPG, delivering a thrilling, moody experience.

19) The Witcher Series

Based on a popular series of fantasy novels by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, The Witcher took gamers by surprise in 2007. Developed by a studio out of Poland called CD Projekt Red, the game follows the protagonist of the books, a witcher (read: monster slayer) by the name of Geralt. It was followed by a well-received sequel in 2011.

The series became well known for the taxing choices players are faced with as the plot unravels. CD Projekt Red broke the trend of black and white morality common among RPGs in the current gaming landscape, presenting dilemmas that drift into gray territory and force players to weigh their options carefully.

18) The Deus Ex Series

In 2000, the original Deus Ex was released to vast critical acclaim. Developed by Ion Storm, it built on elements pioneered six years earlier in System Shock, creating one of the world's first truly realized RPG/first-person shooter hybrids. Recently, the series has been revived with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a long awaited sequel that captures the same open-ended gameplay and dystopian-cyberpunk atmosphere of the original.

Tackling heavy subjects such as post-humanism, class warfare, and the growing political power of multinational corporations, the deep plot of the Deus Ex series is a conspiracy theorist's dream (or nightmare).

17) The Legacy of Kain Series

Blood Omen: The Legacy of Kain was the first hack n' slash RPG that I ever played, and it blew my socks off. Jointly developed by Silicon Knights and Crystal Dynamics (who later engaged in a lengthy legal battle over the property), it told the story of Kain, a vampire antihero who rises from the grave to reap vengeance on his murderers and find a cure for his curse.

The dark fantasy world of Nosgoth would eventually be explored over the course of four more titles (including the Soul Reaver duology), incorporating time travel, alternate dimensions, and Lovecraftian elder gods as Kain's story grew to encompass thousands of years of twisted history.

16) System Shock

System Shock may be the most influential game on this list. Released by Looking Glass Studios in 1994, it pioneered gameplay elements never before seen and featured a level of storytelling then unheard of in action games. Games like Deus Ex and BioShock have been called spiritual successors to System Shock by their creators.

Players take the role of a hacker who agrees to unshackle the ethical constraints of a space station's AI in exchange for neural implants and legal clemency after being apprehended. After awakening from a six-month healing coma to find the AI in control of the station and most of its occupants dead, he sets out to correct his mistake.

15) The Metal Gear Solid series

For years, when someone asked me what my favorite game was, the answer was Metal Gear Solid. It's since been eclipsed by another game on this list, but the series remains in the upper echelon of gaming history. Released by Konami in 1998, Metal Gear Solid was the first game that felt like you were playing an interactive movie.

Players usually take control of Snake, an elite espionage agent favoring stealth over direct confrontation. With a narrative spanning from the Cold War to the near future, the series has touched on themes of war, international intrigue, nuclear proliferation, and information control. Few video game stories have left me as riveted as this one.

14) The Fallout Series

Though it began life as an unofficial sequel to Wasteland, the Fallout series has long since eclipsed its spiritual ancestor to become one of the most popular RPG franchises in the industry, and with good reason.

The Fallout games take place in an alternate history in which the transistor is never invented, atomic physics become the center of modern technology, and a fiery nuclear apocalypse engulfs the world in 2077. The player is usually a denizen of one of the many "vaults" that protect some lucky survivors from annihilation, and is eventually forced to leave this shelter and explore the deadly post-apocalyptic wasteland.

13) The Broken Sword Series

The old school, point-and-click adventure genre has long been one of the premier avenues for great storytelling in video games, and Broken Sword is no exception.

While most adventure games of the time focused on humor, in 1996 Revolution Software presented a story that took itself seriously in Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars. When American George Stobbart becomes the accidental witness of a terrorist attack while on vacation in Paris, he soon finds himself wrapped up in an international conspiracy with the famed Knights Templar at its heart. The action, romance, and intrigue of the Broken Sword games would make Indiana Jones envious.

12) Grim Fandango

Speaking of great writing and adventure games, Grim Fandango is without a doubt right at home on this list. One of the last bastions of the genre before a long dearth that we are only now beginning to recover from, this 1998 classic from Lucasarts has just about everything I love about adventure games.

The game's story revolves around Manny, a travel agent in the Department of Death who is tasked with guiding the recently deceased through the land of the dead. Featuring a cast of memorable characters, a refreshingly original story, and several laugh-out-loud moments, Grim Fandango is long overdue for digital rerelease.

11) The Half-Life Series

In 1998, Valve revolutionized the first-person shooter genre with the release of the first Half-Life, bringing immersive storytelling to a new level and influencing scores of games that followed in its footsteps. Then in 2004, they upped the ante even further with Half-Life 2, a sequel of epic proportions.

Half-Life casts the player into the powered hazard suit of Dr. Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist engaged in a dangerous experiment at the Black Mesa Research Facility. When the experiment goes horribly wrong (natch), Freeman finds himself inadvertently responsible for an interdimensional alien invasion.

And so concludes part one of the countdown!

Swing your eyeballs back around next Monday right here for the exciting conclusion. In the mean time, feel free to let me know what you think of the games on this list (or about the state of writing in video games in general), but don't complain at me about your favorites not making the cut until you've seen the remaining top ten. And if you're a gamer and you haven't played these gems yet, grab the ones you can manage to get your hands on and report back for debriefing.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Time Travel

It's the first second Monday of the month (since I missed last Monday while plugging my most recent publication), which means it's time for an entry in the speculative fiction tropes series. Today we'll be examining one of my all-time favorite science fiction premises, time travel.

Time travel has been around since the very early days of speculative fiction, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Books, movies, television, video games--wherever sci-fi dwells, you'll find multiple stories in which the laws of time are bent, subverted, or smashed plain into pieces.

As a child, movies like the Robert Zemeckis classic Back to the Future helped inspire my love for science fiction. There's just something about a good time travel yarn, something wondrous and intriguing that other stories seem to have to work just a little bit harder for.

This fascination is not limited to the modern art forms. While the fictional means of time manipulation have grown more sophisticated as the human grasp on technology has improved, the concept might be as old as literature itself. There are stories upon stories in the folk tales of cultures around the world that depict some form of time travel, usually by mystical or supernatural means.

Within the Sanskrit epic of ancient India, the Mahabharata, is the story of a king named Kakudmi who sought the counsel of the Hindu god Brahmā to decide who should have his daughter's hand in marriage. He waits patiently to gain an audience with the deity, only to find out that time passes very differently in his plane of existence--millions of years on Earth passed by while he waited; his daughter's suitors have long passed away. The Jewish Talmud speaks of Honi ha-M'agel, who sleeps for 70 years and wakes to find that no one will believe he is who he says he is (written around 1800 years prior to the publication of Washington Irving's famous Rip Van Winkle).

And I could go on and on about the classic works of literature that helped shape the modern incarnation of the concept, from the ghostly visions of past, present, and future in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol to the anachronistic hijinks of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain.

But arguably the most influential author in this regard is the legendary H.G. Wells. Wells may very well have been the first to depict an operable vehicle that allows its user to travel willingly and selectively through time via good old fashioned science and human engineering.

He first toyed with the idea in The Chronic Argonauts, a short story published by the Royal College of Science, but his most famous depiction of time travel is undoubtedly the 1895 novella, The Time Machine, which influenced scores of works to come and coined the term that is now universally synonymous with the concept.

These days, time travel stories are pretty solidly regarded as cliche territory, but I still love them. The ever-flowing nature of time remains a captivating source of inspiration to me, as it has human beings for thousands and thousands of years. What is it about the endless march of time that fascinates? Is it because the reigns of its passage seem so far of out of reach? Perhaps, it's that underlying fear of death that so many of us carry around in our day to day. After all, what is death if not an end to our own subjective voyage through time? One thing's for sure, I think. We'll probably never stop grasping for the reigns, even if it's only in the stories we tell.

In the mean time, don't ever let anyone tell you that time travel is just fiction. Our communications satellites are doing it right now. And if guys like Ronald Mallett ever get their way, there may come a day when bona fide time machines are traversing the space-time continuum. So buckle up.

Recommended Reading:
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury
11/22/63 by Stephen King

Recommended Viewing:
Back to the Future
The Terminator

Recommended Gaming:
Chrono Trigger
The Journeyman Project
Shadow of Destiny

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

IWSG: Originality & The Truth

It's the first Wednesday of the month, which of course hails the regular arrival of the Insecure Writer's Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex J. Cavanaugh. The group offers a place for writers of all kinds to support each other in those ever-present moments of insecurity.

While many use this as an opportunity to vent their frustrations, I realized early on that if I keep posting about my own insecurities, these posts will start sounding very similar. So I decided to move away from "woe is me" and focus on motivation and encouragement, centering my IWSG posts on inspirational quotes from people I admire.

This month's quote comes from late speculative juggernaut C.S. Lewis, who is perhaps best known for his highly regarded fantasy series, The Chronicles of Narnia. I must admit I was never a huge fan of the Narnia books growing up, though I did enjoy The Space Trilogy as a kid.

While the religious themes beneath the surface of his popular works have sometimes proven divisive, C.S. Lewis' influence on the fantasy genre cannot be denied, nor his literary prowess. Thus, it seems somehow appropriate that an author whose work influenced so many had this to say:

"Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it."

I can't tell you how many times I've seen (insecure) writers asking their peers to critique the originality of their grand ideas in the various online writing communities I lurk. Hell, we've probably all had those thoughts from time to time. Has this been done before? Worse yet, is this overdone? We'd all like to think our Exciting New Thing exists only within the bowels of our minds until we wrench it out and get it written, but considering how long people have been telling stories, I think we just have to face the facts: damn near everything has been done already, probably more than once. There have been books and books written about the fact that most of us are just telling the same stories over and over again.

But that's okay. Every artist worth a hill o' beans in this world is influenced by the things around them and the experiences they've accumulated, including the books they read, the movies they watch, and the stories they were told when they were tucked into bed at night. That influence is not a bad thing. More importantly, finding true originality is not just about a story's premise or character archetypes. As Mr. Lewis puts it, it's about telling the truth.

What on Earth does that mean? I can only tell you what it means for me. For me, it means pouring as much of myself onto that page as I can muster. It's about finding my own personal truths (some of which might take a lifetime to find) and putting them to work. Every time I sit down to write, I aim to chisel off a little chunk of my soul, grind it down with a mortar and pestle, and sprinkle the remnants all over my fiction. Because no matter how often the world may have been told the same old stories time and time again, I can guarantee they've never met a creature like me before.

And they've never met you, either. So the next time you find yourself worrying over the originality of that story you've been tinkering around with, switch gears. Focus on yourself and your relationship with the story you're telling. Put a little you in it. If you're honest about it, chances are you'll find something original, even if by accident.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Read "The Dragon Weeps" in Kazka Press

A fantasy story of mine called The Dragon Weeps goes live today in the current issue of Kazka Press. This story and plenty of others are completely free to read on their website. They also offer complimentary epub and PDF files if you'd rather read them on your e-reader or mobile device of choice. Kazka also publishes themed anthologies for purchase if you like what you see and would like to support them financially (and read more rad fiction in the process). A big thanks to L. Lambert Lawson and everyone at Kazka for publishing the story, and to Ted Wilson for the awesome artwork they commissioned (not referring to the photo up top; you can see the art on the Kazka site). This is my first story to have an art piece based on it, which was a very nice surprise. 

As I did with A Giant Mess of Darkness, I figured I'd post some commentary here for those of you who wouldn't mind a little insight into its creation. There will be spoilers ahead though, so if you haven't read the story yet, please do before reading further.

On "The Dragon Weeps" (spoilers inbound) . . .

Those of you familiar with my writing exploits know that I'm primarily a science fiction writer. As a reader, I enjoy a multitude of genres, but sci-fi just seems to be what the muse brings me most of the time. This story, however, was the culmination of an experimental deviation into the world of fantasy. Once I dipped my toes, I had to have more.

I wrote what would eventually become The Dragon Weeps while taking part in a small online workshop last year, and an early version of it actually ended up winning a contest hosted by the site. While I was pleased to have won, I ended up regretting my involvement in the contest, partly for reasons I'd rather not get into (dun dun dun), and partly because I felt there was real potential for the story (which had a different name then) to be fleshed out and put to market.

Ultimately, what came as a part of that process was the story you've read today, which not only cemented my new found love for writing fantasy, but birthed an entire history full of stories waiting to be told. I call the realm this story takes place in, "The Forged World," and I hope you enjoyed the small glimpse of it you had today, because I have grand plans in store. I hope one day I can draw the curtains back and reveal the maelstrom that's brewing in my head.

As for the story itself, this also marked a different approach to writing for me. Usually, the basic backbone of a story already exists in my head by the time I actually sit down to write. In this case, however, I sat down with a completely empty slate and plucked a single sentence out of the aether. A man stands alone, watching the night sky. From there, I asked questions. Why is he alone? He's waiting for someone. Why is he watching the sky? He's nervous about a reluctant decision. What decision? And so on, until I met poor Oswyn, torn between loyalty, compassion, and fear, with a little moral ambiguity thrown in for good measure.

I hope you enjoyed The Dragon Weeps, and I'd love to hear what you thought of it. If you found your way here from Kazka, feel free to stick around and say hello. I won't bite.

A quick note:

Since this is going up on a Saturday and Monday is a holiday here in the States, I've decided to wait until next Monday to post my next entry in the Speculative Fiction Tropes series so that people have a chance to catch this entry. I'll still be posting for the IWSG on Wednesday. Enjoy your weekend, folks.

photo credit: Zachery Jensen via cc