To Mod or Not To Mod? That Is The Question

Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous User Interfaces meant for consoles and not PCs,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of overlooked bugs,
And by modding, end them?

Okay, enough bastardising the bard’s (the Stratford one) works for my own gain.

What I’m trying to ask is: as players, should we add mods to what we play? And, as designers, should we design our games to be expanded by user generated content?

Downloadable Content and User Generated Content are an interesting and unique trait that games have that other mediums generally don’t; can we take advantage if that? I’m not aware of a publicly accepted method of adding viewer content into West Side Story, or Citizen Kane; or of communities of art gallery patrons developing their own optional additions or modifications to Starry Night to load into their digitally downloaded pieces. Yes, there are artists who mimic other artists in both games, art, film, and literature; but these are artistic homages rather than user generated content or DLC. But what if JJ Abrams allowed a mod for removing lense flares? Would Star Trek (Paramount Pictures, 2009) have been a better film?

I think mods are awesome; at least as a concept. Mods allow hobbyist and aspiring developers/designers to generate their own content for a pre-existing game and distribute it to other users. These mods can be anything, ranging from content mods like new quests or items to unofficial patches fixing numerous bugs.

I don’t personally use mods very often. The only games I’ve really installed third-party content on is Microsoft Flight Simulator: X (ACES Studio/Microsoft Studios, 2006), Kerbal Space Program (Squad, 2015), and Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011). It’s not because of a moral opposition to mods though; not a lot of mods really appeal too much to me as a player. I’ve used things like SkyUI, or added non-stock planes and parts to FSX and KSP respectively.

For many players, mods genuinely enhance player experience; and often not from a disdain for the vanilla systems but as a display of love for the games. Not only do players want to play the game, they want to keep playing and contributing and playing and loving. In reality, if a game is comprehensively poor who would contribute to it at all?

In summary, I think its important for us as game designers to remember that games are for the player, and developing and adding mods extend their experience; often for better, some times for worse. My suggestion for players: don’t dismiss the vanilla versions; it might be your favourite flavour.

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Mommy, Where Do Characters Come From?

Mommy, Where Do Characters Come From?

I really like Role Playing Games. RPGs, and most video games for that matter, tell stories in a much different way than other mediums like movies or literature. Although games can be compared to both movies and books, RPGs just have a way of immersing me into their worlds, involving me with their characters, and engaging my brain in a much different way. The main difference between books/movies is involvement. In the case of an RPG I am not only watching a story unfold I am also manipulating the story in a diegetic context. This is to say that my participation in the story comes through my embodiment of a character within that story, and my actions affect the world of the game from within the world of the game. This is opposed to grand-strategy type games where players assume a more omnipresent type role. [side note]

Almost invariably RPGs tell the story of the player character. After spending some time playing I started to wonder where these characters come from and the context of that character’s origin and life as it pertains to the game’s diegesis. How do they effect the game-world/narrative and what’s the game-world/narrative’s affect on them?

What’s going on with the player character prior to the my intervention in the game’s narrative? Did they exist before I showed up? Where did they come from? What’s my role in their lives? What was/is their role in the world?

After some time I realized that there are really only three (well, two and a half) categories for the characters that we play in our RPGs. Sometimes these characters already existed with their own past and attributes, sometimes they are injected into the world generated with our input, and other times they’re a bit of both. I like to refer to these categories as thespians, newcomers, and divinely created characters.

Thespian Player Characters

Thespian Player Character is a player character who’s identity, personality, qualities, and attributes originate strictly from within the game’s diegesis and the player assumes this role as an actor.

As a thespian the player comes to the game as a character who already exists in the world of the game. These characters have a predetermined history, a set of predetermined abilities, and a predetermined identity. In short, the player has litte to no control over the stats of this character, or this character’s place in the story, and simply takes control at the beginning of the game.

Many adventure-RPGs have thespian player characters: The Witcher (CD Projekt Red, 2007) “tells the story of Geralt of Rivia, who is a witcher – a genetically enhanced and trained human with special powers” where the player acts as Geralt; in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo EAD, 1998) players act as Link, an orphan boy raised by a tree in the Kokiri Forest and destined to save Hyrule; and in To The Moon (Freebird Games, 2011) players act as Dr Rosalene and Dr. Watts who are “tasked with fulfilling the lifelong dream of the dying Johnny Wyles.” In each of these cases the character’s identities and lives have been pre-defined within the game world and the player simply assumes this role like the great William Shatner assumes the role of Shakespeare’s King Henry V.

However, unlike Bill Shatner’s amazingness, the future or destiny of Thespian Characters is not always written in stone. The qualities of a Thespian Character are generally predefined up to the point where the player enters the game world. Depending on how each game works characters can progress and affect the story according to the player’s action. In cases where there are level progression systems or divergent storylines the development of the character is up to the player.

Newcomer Player Characters

The Newcomer Player Character is a player character who’s identity, personality, qualities, and attributes originate outside of the game diegesis and are usually created through some sort of character creation system prior to, or during the early parts, of a game’s narrative.

The character’s back-story and current place in the game’s world is generally as a traveller or passerby or some other type of newcomer with little to no personal ties in the game-world. This serves as a narrative device used to easily inject the character into the world. Here the player comes to the game as a newly generated character who, up to this point, did not exist in the game world.

In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) and Pillars of Eternity (Obsidian Entertainment, 2015) player characters follow the traveller trope. In these games the player character is simply an outsider/foreigner who is passing through a region and is somehow thrust into the main conflict of the narrative (in Skyrim you are arrested; in Pillars of Eternity you fall mystically ill). In both cases the player selects a very vague history for their character by selecting their sex and race. Pillars of Eternity takes it further by allowing the player to not only select their race but also their sub-race, a class, a culture, and a background.

It should be noted that these don’t affect the game-world in any way. These selections simply mould the character towards a player’s playing style and affect the character and the character alone. In general the character is injected into the game world in isolation from it.

It should also be noted that many party-based RPGs such as Pillars of Eternity and Baldur’s Gate (Bioware, 1998) contain both thespians and newcomers in their game-play.

But, like most game design concepts, there are exceptions to the rule and of course characters can exist somewhere between being a Thespian or a Newcomer!

Divinely Created Player Characters

The Divinely Created Player Character is a player character who’s identity, personality, qualities, and attributes originate outside of the game diegesis but who are assumed to have existed inside the games diegesis prior to the player’s involvement and therefore can have a complex history, pre-existing relationships, and pre-determined personality.

These characters are like thespian characters in that they exist in the game-world prior to the player’s arrival. Unlike Thespian characters their attributes originate outside the game-world; they are set by the player during a character creation phase at the beginning of the game like a Newcomer character.

An interesting example of a divinely created player character is in Dragon Age: Origins (Bioware, 2009). Here, the player customizes their character by choosing their sex, race, and class but the player also selects an “origin story” for their character. Unlike Skyrim or Pillars of Eternity the generated characters in Dragon Age have histories that are entwined into the game’s diegesis. Not only is their background story already part of the game-world but it drastically affects the player’s (and their character’s) experience at the beginning of the game.

In all these categories the player is embodying a character, immersed into a new world full of adventure and intrigue. Wherever these characters come from; whether we are playing as a thespian, or as a newcomer, or if we are devinely created isn’t always important. It’s not always about where we come from. What really matters of course is where our characters go from here.


Seriously, RPGs are awesome! Do you prefer to play a thespian character? Or maybe you like the newcomer characters? Either way let me know in the comments here or hit me up on Twitter: @adamthegameguy

Disclaimer: I was not paid to mention any of the games in this post. I just really like RPGs!

As a side note: there are instances where the omnipresent player is assumed to exist in the world of the game. XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Firaxis Games, 2012) players assume the role of XCOM’s new Commander and from that role players manage assets and coordinate missions. Similarly in Medieval II: Total War (Creative Assembly Ltd., 2006) you assume the role of a nation’s nobility. However, in both these cases the player has an omnipresent perspective where they control characters and elements outside of their own in-world existence. For example: in XCOM all the characters are directed by the player, but not embodied by the player. As the commander, I cannot put on an armour suit and join the squad in battle, nor can I navigate through the world as the embodied commander. In these cases, Commander and King serve as narrative devices connecting the player’s actions to the game world. [back to top]

What do games do?

I had an interesting conversation yesterday which challenged me to really think about why I love games, beyond “they’re a lot of fun!” It lead me to take a step back away from myself and seriously analyze what I do and what I feel when I play games (video or otherwise) and I felt that it lead to some interesting ideas and I wanted to share them with you.

It should be noted that everything here is, in some form or another, something I already knew about games and things I already applied to my designing/developing; the thing is I didn’t know I knew it yet (yay self discovery!). It should also be noted that these design goals and play experiences may not be the ultimate truth for all; I like to think that we all experience games differently and uniquely. Here’s some ideas about how I experience them:

1 – Games can provide an escape

This is the first thing that came to mind when I was posed the question “what do you use games for?” and I think that this is true for many. Games provide an opportunity to remove oneself from the stresses (or boredoms even) of everyday life and step into a whole new situation for a little while; a situation with its own goals, values, characters, and outcomes. This is particularly apparent in video gaming. In design and game reviews we see words like immersive or enveloping a lot. This means to describe the player’s total and deep mental involvement in the experience that is gameplay.

And this idea of an immersive play experience isn’t limited to video games. Any game can be immersive. I remember over Christmas my family was gathered around the dining room table playing Munchkin Adventure Time. During the game we were entirely engulfed in what we were playing; gleefully participating in the unfolding emergent story that was our dungeon adventure (time). For awhile, we escaped into the dungeons of Ooo and cooperatively, and sometime un-cooperatively, made our way to Level 10.

I think it’s fair to say that most game designers strive to create an immersive experience for their players. I know I do.

This idea that one can escape through game and play lead me to my second thought:

2 – A game can provide an opportunity to be somebody else, or be the person you really want to be

RPGs are the best example of this idea. In many RPGs the very first thing a player does is create their character; their representation of themselves in this new world. Through these representatives players move through these worlds interacting with NPCs, environments, enemies, and even other player’s representatives. This provides us with the unique opportunity to become someone else.

Have you ever wanted to be a medieval military general? Here’s a strategy game. Ever wanted to be the ruler of a civilization? Here’s a Sid Meier game! Want to be an astronaut? You can totally do that. Gangster? Thug? Bank Robber? You can be all these things. Not only can we escape into other worlds, we can become other people in those worlds.

But we can also be ourselves. Or better yet, the person we want to be. When I am playing an RPG I often find that I am imposing my own personality and values onto my in-game representative. When presented with a dialogue option I frequently say to myself “I would never say or do that kind of thing!” Or, I will perform grandiose actions based on my own personality.

(This next paragraph may contain a light spoiler, but I’ll try to be as general as possible)

There is a particular moment that comes to mind when I was playing Bethesda’s pos-apocalyptic romp Fallout 3. I had just escaped the Vault and made my way into a nearby town. While chilling at the local tavern, trying to grasp this wasted world around me, I talked to a well dressed gentleman who offered me a large sum of money to do a very bad thing. Here, I was provided the chance to be myself, another person, or something I wanted to be. And I wanted do be a strong altruistic “chaotic good” hero; values I wish to see in myself in the real world. So I shot the well dressed gentleman dead. In the face; so he couldn’t harm anyone ever again. And honestly, it felt good to be good.

I should really clarify that I don’t actually want to shoot people in the face, and if I ever found myself in a similar situation in real life I would probably call the police. The point here isn’t that I want to be a violent person, but I want to be a good person.

My next point kind of stems from the whole shooting people in the face bit:

3 – Games let us make decisions that are, in general, inconsequential

If I shoot a bad guy in the face in a game, nothing is really going to happen to me in real life. That choice was generally inconsequential. That isn’t to say that the choice didn’t have any consequence; there were in-game events that happened. Generally speaking I was presented with a hypothetical situation, which stimulated my mind and value systems, and I made a hypothetical decision. The difference between games and thought-experiments is that in games we get to take “hypothetical actions.” More than just making a decision in our minds, we take action with our game controller (or keyboard or play a card etc) which can lead to visual and audible responses, and “hypothetical consequences” which lead to whole new hypotheticals! And at the end of the day, nobody really got shot in the face.

The best part of these hypotheticals is the fact that these sort of things probably won’t ever happen in my real life, which brings me to my last point

4 – Games put us in situations of our choosing that we generally won’t experience in real life

“Games are a series of interesting decisions” – Sid Meier (Creator of the Civilization series)

I know, I know. There is a lot of contention and debate about this quote (or misquote as some would say). Rather than get into the quote itself (I could probably write a whole post about it) I would actually like to paraphrase it a bit and say:

“Games are a series of interesting [experiences]” – Adam Carriere (Creator of this blog you’re reading)

I’m probably never going to experience the opportunity to fight a dragon with my loud voice, design and fly a space rocket, thwart an alien invasion, or command the elements as a geomancer in real life. But I can certainly experience these things as a player. And that’s awesome.

That’s why I love games.


 

Why do you love games? Feel free to share your thoughts here in the comments or over on Twitter (@adamthegameguy)!

Thanks for reading! Please note: I did my best to link my game references to their official webpages, but other than Adventure Time Munchkin they should all be available through Steam for you to enjoy (and experience)!