Saturday, 15 December 2012

Preview: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

This preview can also be found at Shadowlocked, here.

Preview: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (PS3)...

I'll be honest here: I'm not a Studio Ghibli fan, and not of the works of Miyazaki in particular. His films are pretty, no arguments there. But as a jaded and bitter adult, the endless whimsy does little for me, and the ham-fisted environmentalist messages even less.

So on paper, Ni No Kuni, an RPG co-produced by Studio Ghibli (right down to Joe Hisaishi composing the soundtrack) would do little for me. Fortunately they are working alongside RPG masterminds Level-5 – and now I've had time to play the PS3 title, I can safely say that although the theme is pure Ghibli, the gameplay experience is totally my kind of game.

Ah, but why do I say the “PS3 title” specifically? Well, back in 2010, Level-5 and Studio Ghibli made Ni No Kuni: The Jet Black Mage for the DS. While a solid RPG in its own right, its main draw was that it came with a real-world grimoire, reflecting one that appeared in the game. Within it was information on every weapon, item and enemy, as well as detailed lore about the game world. Due to the hefty translation requirements of the book, the game was never localised.

However, the PS3 release, retaining the basic story basis and characters – as well as including the high quality graphical production as expected of any HD console – has the budget and the scale to get a full English translation, book included. Hisaishi's soundtrack (performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic orchestra, no less) is coupled with smatterings of fully animated cut-scenes from Ghibli; in a similar way to how Catherine had some scenes animated by STUDIO4°C.

The rise of a classic

Ni No Kuni: Rise of the White Witch...

The story is very familiar fare. You play as Oliver, an ordinary kid living in an ordinary (if somewhat 50's-ish) town. But due to a series of unfortunate events, his mother dies of heart failure. Distraught by his sudden loss, Oliver's tears transform a doll given to him by his mother. The now living doll (with a charmingly well-localised Welsh accent) calls himself Drippy, Lord of the Faeries. He tells Oliver of a mysterious evil plaguing his home land, and needs Oliver - as the Chosen One - to take up the role of a wizard to cure the spreading case of Brokenheartedness plaguing the population.

If you're familiar of the Hero's Journey story archetype, Ni No Kuni plays it line for line. And as a game designed for children (and written by Studio Ghibli), you would expect no less. The vast lush scenery porn of the Other World, its adorable denizens (enemy and ally alike), and how the game gently hand holds you from check point to check point ensures that Ni No Kuni is ideal for the son, daughter or young sibling in your life.

But don't take this as Ni No Kuni being unsuitable for older audiences to play. Level-5 shows some great mastery of game design, lending tricks from their previous RPG exploits. The battle system is that of a simplified action RPG (and a subtle call back to Rogue Galaxy on the PS2). You can freely run around the battle arena, but attacking and defending are on timers. Deciding the best time to attack is incredibly important, especially when Oliver's running speed is rather feeble.

When battles get too hot for him to handle, Oliver can summon a familiar to fight in his stead. Almost every foe in the game can be recruited to your side; all detailed in full within your magical grimoire. While the preorder version of Ni No Kuni will come with a physical copy, the entire text is available within the game itself. The translation and content echoes strongly of Dragon Quest IX (also produced by Level-5), right down to the punny names of foes. The Hog-Goblin line of enemies also features the Gobfather, the Gobspeed and the Gobforsaken. Christ.

When you're not battling monsters, you are puzzle solving...of the highest order. As a wizard, Oliver's task to cure Brokenheartedness requires him to borrow a little Heart from those who have excess to cure those who are lacking. A guard lacking a get-up-and-go attitude? Find him a little Enthusiasm! On paper they're little more than side quests; but it's a clever bit of attention paid to the game's theme. You're magically fixing broken hearts on a quest to save your mother... and what did she die of again?

I do always have a soft spot for games that include a bestiary; so the way Ni No Kuni encourages you to read as you roam, discovering new pages as you play, is incredibly compelling. The game reportedly has an around 50 hour play time, but finding all there is to see (and completing the huge number of side quests) will add on many more. For those who need to be won over (or just want to see the lush visuals in action), a demo is available on the PSN right now! Otherwise, the full game will be available from the 25th January, 2013.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Preview: Sonic & All-Stars Racing: Transformed (WiiU)

This preview has also been released (in a slightly edited form) on Shadowlocked, here.

The Mario Vs. Sonic rivalry hasn't quite died yet. Sure, they get along just fine at the Olympics, but when it comes to Kart racing, Sonic is still looking to take the top spot.

Between Mario Kart and its long list of competitors across console generations, the genre has become incredibly refined. At this stage, in order to remain competitive, innovation and bold statements are definitely required. In the light of Mario Kart 7, All-Stars Racing Transformed has done both of those things; and it succeeds! Mostly.

What makes the All-Stars Racing series stand out is its use of Sega history. While Sonic's in the game title, it's not all about him. Characters and courses are sourced from all places, with surprising additions. Transformed features a Skies of Arcadia stage (and Vyse as a racer), and raceways born from Panzer Dragoon and Afterburner, of all things. For more contemporary cameos, the Starlight Carnival stage from Sonic Colours is included, which is just as mind-blowingly colourful as the original.

Transformed makes itself directly comparable to Mario Kart 7 by having the vehicles (you guessed it) transform. However, while the hang glider and submersible in Mario Kart handled in manners similar to the basic car, the planes and boats in Transformed handle noticeably differently.

On paper, this makes a lot of sense. In terms of... let's say 'gamefeel', having each vehicle type handle differently is logical; a plane controlling exactly like a car would feel terrible. At the same time, having the handling of your car change severely in the middle of a race can be very off-putting if you're not prepared for it.

The previously mentioned planes are egregious for this. Developers Sumo Digital realised that, in a game designed for all ages, having total free-flight would end in wayward chaos. As such, you can turn on a 'guiding path' that creates a friendly green guideline in the flying sections. It's also somewhat magnetic – flying too far away from the line will pull you back on track. You can turn this assist system off at any time, but after using it for a while, the full plane controls gave me the piloting skills of a drunken madman. I hastily turned the guides back on.

Like any self-respecting kart racer, All Stars Racing Transformed has weapons – but interestingly, they aren't the randomised game-changers that they are in Mario Kart. Equivalents to the Blue Shell and the Lightning are nowhere to be found. This, personally, is a glorious, well-judged addition. While, in close races, a well-timed firework will get you into the lead, the person at the back can no longer effortlessly ruin the person in first place.

What they have to challenge the leader instead are stage hazards. On some courses, like Starlight Carnival, enemies from the source material will hover ahead causing havoc. On all stages, there will be a sudden swarm of bees at set intervals during the race. The person in 1st place will have to deal with them, and poor driving at these moments can leave you fighting to hold position. While sudden, it never feels unfair – but having these obstacles be bees on every stage feels like a wasted opportunity for good theming. They could easily be ninjas on the Shinobi stage, or Rokkaku Police on the Jet Set Radio stage.

In terms of game modes, they've taken the time to go beyond the basic standards. There's the regular Grand Prix, versus modes, and battle modes – but there's also an extensive single player mode that acts as a sort of 'career', with race requirements, branching paths and challenge races. The challenge races are legitimately difficult, and are a great way to improve your skills in the game (don't know how to powerslide? Do the checkpoint challenge where you get bonus time for good drifts, and you'll learn fast). If you want to take things online, up to 10 racers can participate at once.

While there are additional functions that make use of the Wii U's assets, they're all rather incidental. That's no bad thing – labouring gimmicks into the control scheme would definitely hinder more than it would help. You can use the tablet controller as a steering wheel should you wish (you won't); the screen acts as a top-down map in single player, and your own personal screen in multiplayer.

It feels a little mean-spirited of me to continually mention Mario Kart while writing about a game that's legitimately solid and entertaining in its own right; but much of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed wouldn't exist (or at least wouldn't be so refined) without the context provided by Nintendo's racing series. That Transformed has managed to take that context and make it its own this is definitely commendable, though. Until Nintendo release Mario Kart WiiU (and trust me, they will), Transformed is looking to happily be your kart racer for the next generation.

N.B. After the article went up on Shadowlocked, I had an error corrected. Rather than butcher the paragraph to fix it, and addendum was placed:

Since writing this, I've been corrected about the weapons. There is actually an equivalent to the Blue Shell in All Stars Racing Transformed: the bee swarms. During my (short) time playing, I never found them in item rotation, so I took them as a stage hazard. That this isn't the case is actually a huge shame, though the reality makes a lot of sense. I'd still enjoy it if the bees were themed to to stage they appeared in, though.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

5 video games that demand a film adaptation (and some that don't)

Going by the AAA titles, game design shares elements with film design. Having a fully voiced and acted plotline is common these days. However, video games make for poor films. Game series that get adapted to film are campy cult hits at best, and a waste of everyone's time at worst.

Still, games adapted to film aren't an entirely toxic concept; it just takes a little bit of lateral thinking. Here are 5 films I feel could be interesting adaptations, and a few that definitely shouldn't make a trip to Hollywood. (Note that some titles I mention may be in production already. Just because they exist doesn't mean they should.)

Take them to the silver screen

Yakuza (2005, Sega)

Who would direct it?: Chan-wook Park (Oldboy)
Yakuza has drama on two levels. On one, there's the inter-personal relationships of ageing yakuza members searching for peace and comfort. On another, there's Kazuma Kiryu repeatedly ramming a barstool into some thug's face.

Adapted as an action movie, a gradual swing between emotional torment and low budget, brutally choreographed violence would be deliciously harrowing; a welcome escape from the CGI and explosions that's the normal go-to for the genre.

Luigi's Mansion (2002, Nintendo)

Who would direct it?: Dean DeBlois (How to Train Your Dragon, Mulan)
Feel-good summer blockbuster of the year; one plumber who has long suffered in his brother's shadow, plucks up the courage to be the driving force in his own life. A decent animation studio is a must - the Mushroom Kingdom doesn't work in real-life proportions, evidenced many times.

Half the fun would be Luigi's ghostbusting antics, the other half being a great art direction. Hey, if Disney's Wreck-It Ralph makes a decent return at the box office, and they retain the license to use Nintendo characters, this may not end up being conjecture.

...I wish.

Driver: San Francisco (2011, Ubisoft)

Who would direct it?: Scott Sanders (Black Dynamite)
Driver:SF is a love letter to the car chase genre, right down to bonus missions that reference big-name films set in San Fran. However, a Scary Movie style adaptation with endless references isn't going to cut it.

The plot of Driver:SF is campy, simple and incidental (John Tanner is a cop chasing down criminal mastermind Charles Jericho - even in his dreams), meaning a film version can go all out in telling a self-parodying tale about comas, fast cars, and rebellious police.

If they manage to retain the game's mechanic of Tanner possessing other drivers, the chase sequences could be unlike any other.

L.A. Noire (2011, Team Bondie)

Who would direct it?: Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
The Artist, though I didn't care for it, proved an important point - the techniques of old can have modern relevance. Gaming fans already know about this (what with all the retro-style indie games out there), but here it means that mimicking old film styles has more validity than just being a gimmick.

L.A. Noire's 1940s setting heavily reflects actual Film Noir (right down to the use of flashback), but Film Noir is traditionally done in the 'past tense' (with the protagonist as a narrator), while L.A. Noire is very much 'present tense'. Doing the adaptation in a true-to-period style would make for an interesting angle, and might encourage viewers to look into some Noir classics.

Mother 3 (2006, Nintendo)

Who would direct it?: Chris Butler (ParaNorman, Coraline)
The Mother series is known for its cute and colourful settings, with a darker horrifying plot underneath. That kind of setup just begs to be told in a twee stop-motion format (without Tim Burton, preferably).

Mother 3 in particular is a great tale experienced by few, and a surprisingly sad and moving one at that. Having recently watched ParaNorman, the team behind that would do incredible justice to such a project. Just... Don't let very young children watch - they may be permanently scarred.

Keep them on the game console

Mass Effect series (2007-2012, Bioware)

Mass Effect's charm really isn't in its world-building. What the games did well was making that world feel relevant to the player - a range of choices in character design, dialogue options, good/evil dichotomies, and so on. A film (being a linear narrative) has to choose a single story path - so writers of a Mass Effect movie would have to try and encompass a representative telling of the games with a single continuity - and that just ain't happening.

The series' huge backstory also puts it in a position similar to the lacklustre Watchmen. A fine line stands between drowning newcomers in lore, and not having enough in-jokes for the diehard fans. Failure results in a hot mess. Mass Effect would likely suffer even worse - fans are going to take every difference between the film and their own personal experience on board.

Uncharted series (2007-2011, Naughty Dog)

Uncharted is already 90% film. The set pieces in the series are grand and dramatic, but the best moments are where you have control during the death-defying parts - the possibility that you could mess up and leave Nathan Drake to perish. Just watching the same scene (without the uncertainty of survival, no less) voids that tension.

Aside from that, the actual events in the Uncharted games are pressingly generic in action films. We've had decades of ruins exploration, shoot-outs against Russians and snappy one-liners - Drake as a character can't offer anything new to that formula.

Heavy Rain (2010, Quantic Dream)

Heavy Rain is, in a way, a film rendered as a video game. The director, David Cage, has gone on record many times saying that the future of games is to make them more like films, and has yet to prove himself correct.

The game's cinematography is definitely first class, but little else is. Heavy Rain's story is unique for a game, but dire for a film. Character motivations are all over the place, and the character plot threads are hastily stitched together. An adaptation would have to fix so much to make things competent, it may as well be a different story.

Final Notes

Video game stories are generally unambitious and often pandering, but a common complaint levelled at film adaptations (and this holds true for films adapted from other kinds of media) is that the narrative strays too far from the original work. The long-term fans want to see their darlings in a 1:1 translation, and won't stand for less.

The best film adaptations that I've seen don't take the source's story verbatim, but instead understand the feel of the original. The Street Fighter movie isn't great, but it's an adaptation that definitely captures the goofy nature of Street Fighter, even if the character roles and actor choices are unorthodox.

If game-to-film adaptations are to succeed, the games with a strong theme, easily understood context, and with room for reinterpretation are key. Just taking what sells well isn't going to cut it.

Then again, since when were adaptations about artistic integrity?

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Too Spooky Shopping Trip

This article has been written as part of the Critical Distance October Blogs of the Round Table. It can also be read at Digital Heaven Entertainment, here.

The scariest moment in gaming I've experienced? Accidentally saving over a near-endgame file of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance. I've not really played any horror games. Not because I don't want to, I've just never really gotten around to it.

Hopefully not having played the first 3 Silent Hills won't invalidate my opinions as a Person Wot Writes About Games; but until I eventually play them, there are a few times where a game has been successfully unsettling. The one that's still stuck with me is from Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey.

As a series, the Shin Megami Tensei games (this is excluding Persona and other spinoffs, mind) are very thematically similar. You, a lowly human have been gifted with the technology to summon demons to fight by your side, while a ridiculous catastrophic event goes on around you. Depending on how you react to certain story choices, you gain a Chaotic/Lawful alignment (intentionally not just 'good/evil', though often it pans out to be the same).

Where Strange Journey differs is its setting - a series of twisted worlds called the Schwarzwelt. Created by demons, it represents the ills of the human condition. You play as a soldier of a global army, investigating the Schwarzwelt in an attempt to destroy it; though you quickly find yourself unable to escape.

Welcome to Sector Carina

Up to a point, each location in the game plays up a problem with humanity, with a surreal twist. A lot of these areas don't have the impact they should (which I will discuss later), but the third area, Sector Carina is meant to represent humanity's greed, being a gigantic demon shopping mall.

And you know what? It really creeped me out. Sadly, not entirely due to the game's aesthetics, but at least partially! Sector Carina was clever in being uncanny. At first look, everything does look like an ordinary shopping mall (through the filter of low-quality textures on a DS screen), but then you talk to the first NPC:

And then you look at the posters and the shop windows:

And then you pay attention to the slow, militaristic waltz used as background music:

And it settles in that this is a shopping mall with all of the pretence stripped away. Everything you could ever want is within these walls (along with a whole lot of stuff you don't), and your only company are towering urges to BUY, EAT, and CONSUME.

Relevance in a Riot

I was playing Strange Journey in August 2011, and reached Sector Carina during the time when the England Riots occurred. For those who aren't familiar, a riot broke out in Tottenham, a district of London, on the 7th of August. What had started out as a protest against police corruption and brutality in the area took a turn for the violent once someone decided to throw a bottle when the police arrived to suppress the protest. Things escalated quickly, with shops smashed and ransacked, and arson attempts. Once it started, similar riots sprang up all across London, and then into other, unrelated cities of England.

On the day they had started, I happened to already be in the centre of town, watching Croydon slowly go up in flames on BBC News. Had I not gone home when I did, the underground and bus services would have closed, leaving me stranded on Tottenham Court Road. I get home by sundown and find through Twitter that even my local high street had rioters.

While the area where I lived wasn't especially wealthy, it didn't have economic and police problems as severe as the ones in Tottenham. As I found out more about the event, it became woefully apparent that the majority of the rioters weren't causing anarchy for any kind of cause, other than their own pockets.

In a way, even though what happened is incredibly sad, I empathise. People riot in pursuit of aspirations, and ideally you'd want those aspirations to be political. However, many of us (and I'm including myself here) have aspirations that don't extend too far beyond our economic status, the next pair of shoes, the next luxury meal, the next tablet computer.

That some of us are willing to go to the lengths of destruction just to get it (along with the vague promise that you won't get caught) is actually pretty scary! It weighed on my mind, as I progressed through Carina, being told that the area was run by the demon Horkos, a glutton so dedicated, it ate an entire space craft, filled with the protagonist's comrades. Drawing a parallel between materialism and violence is heavy-handed, but it's not exactly incorrect.

It is later implied through some side-NPC dialogue that the layout of the Sector was based on a human shopping mall. This kind of M. Night Shyamalan twist made me roll my eyes, but then, the Westfield shopping mall in Stratford opened.

Retail Therapy & Theming Consistency

It's hardly likely to be the largest shopping complex out there, but I felt dwarfed by Westfield Stratford's size when I visited in its opening week. It had a casino. It had a 10-screen cinema. It had a food court that took up almost a third of the whole complex, with every kind of regional cooking speciality. It's the kind of place that would get anti-capitalists and anti-consumerists feeling violently ill, but I actually, honestly enjoy that kind of thing.

As I walk around, I recall Sector Carina and suddenly feel awkward. I make a realisation. For once, the moral soapboxing in a piece of media is about me. Funnily enough, by being very faithfully tied to the rules of what makes an Atlus JRPG, Strange Journey keeps its theme and its gameplay woefully separated. It hamstrings the entire game, really.

While I couldn't get emotionally invested with the themes of war or lust, if they'd taken the time to do something to make those ideas relevant to the player, they'd have more impact. It makes Sector Carina's effectiveness something of an accident. While the stage itself didn't do anything to make you think about greed via the game mechanics, materialistic greed is something that I can admit to having done in the past, way more than bloodthirstiness or careless environmental destruction or (sadly) wanton hedonism. Sector Carina was effective because the setting has (at least for me) some real-life parallels; not just a strawman argument of humanity.

While my experience with Strange Journey is very much down to circumstance, the aesthetic and theme of Sector Carina could still be used in other games. Commerce as Horror is something not really explored, unless you count Dead Rising (you shouldn't) or one of the stages in Illbleed (which does use greed as a mechanic, impressively). No one should experience their neighbourhood being torn apart in the pursuit of goods in real life, but they can damn sure could see it done in a game.

N.B.: You can read about the finer details of the 2011 riots at the Guardian here. The information is surprisingly extensive.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

10 Features More Games Should Include

This feature can also be found on Shadowlocked, here.

Everyone has their personal likes and dislikes when it comes to game design, and when making games for the public, a developer can't possibly please everyone. That said, there are often trends and fashions when it comes to putting features in a game, and there are definitely some features that I wish would start appearing more often in current releases.

As a small disclaimer, these personal preferences aren't at all objective. There is a long time yet before I'm crowned Ultimate Overlord of Game Design. And I'm not saying all games have to include these features - they are the sprinkles on top that could make a solid game even better.

1. Local Multiplayer
Local Multiplayer on Mario Party N64...
I grew up playing games designed for 'friends on the couch' style gaming. My childhood was filled with many evenings of Snowboard Kids and Mario Party on the N64. These days, because online play is incredibly prevalent, playing with strangers on the internet takes precedence over anyone in the room with you. It worked well for Journey, but when there are games like SSX that don't offer Split-screen play, something is horribly wrong.

2.The Non-Violent Option
Sure, breaking ribs is great, but must we always revert to violence Batman?
So you're a paragon of virtue, and being attacked by thugs. Sure you could just impale them with three feet of steel, but you're 'the good guy', so simply cracking all their ribs and leaving them to the elements is the obvious humane choice. Batman: Arkham City and Deus Ex: Human Revolution both do this, and it's a little unsettling. If I'm to be given the option of non-lethal force, I'd like to not have to hospitalise half the population, thanks.

3. Theming With a Meaning
The upcoming Watch Dogs concerns internet security. Should more games have fixed meaning?
With the push for video games to be considered an art form and not just entertainment, games are going to have to be 'about' something. Not just "This is a game about being a cool guy with awesome powers", but actually discussing something relevant to real life. Better yet, let the player interact with a meaningful topic through the game play. The soon to be released Watch Dogs is very much about Internet security. By placing you as a character who's job is to hack into other people's lives, you're going to think a lot more about how you handle your real life internet affairs.

4. Beautiful in Any Body
Feeling a bit dog-rough? Well Saints Row allowed you to show that through your character customisation...
A popular inclusion in many games of this generation is character customisation. On paper it's a good idea - you can immerse yourself in a game even further by having a representation of yourself - but often the options are rather limited. Which isn't really a problem if you're an average-looking white dude, but it can be a bit disappointing for everyone else. The Saints Row series is very notable for how it accommodates all body types (and genders!) to a ridiculous extreme, and it's something other games with customisation should really look into.

5. Gotta Collect 'Em All
You just HAD to have them all. Damn you Pokemon...
I never grew out of my Pokémon phase. It's sad, but true. What kept me coming back was the immense number of team combinations I could come up with, and the effort put into all of the monster designs. It's the same traits that has me hooked on Magic: the Gathering, too. Collecting and customisation is a tried and tested way to hook an audience, and it's way less insidious than the Skinner Box techniques that games like World of Warcraft employ to keep you playing.

6. A Grey Matter
It's so stale when a game tells you that your actions are either unquestionably just or pure evil. It's a weird illusion of choice when really a better story can be told without forcing such Black-and-White morality. Catherine does a good job of having a personality quandary without it necessarily being about morality. Better yet, NieR is a title that at its very core is about subverting your feelings as to what's right or wrong.

7. In With The New
CoD: Modern warfare 3 was the 8th installment of Infinity Ward's Call of Duty series. How much is too much?
It's something that plagues all media, not just video games, but endless sequels feel really restrictive and stagnating. Some of the best games have the benefit of not having to be tied to a canon. Platinum Studios (the guys behind Bayonetta and Vanquish) have deftly avoided making proper sequels to their own Intellectual Property; and it lets each game speak for itself.

8. Mytholo-VG
Shin Megami Tensei - full of mythological fun
Very circumstantial, but I just love it when, if a game has to source from world literature and culture, it goes all out in its adaptation. The menagerie of mythological beasts and deities in the Shin Megami Tensei series keeps me coming back game after game. Of course, shallow or lazy insertions are not favoured. More Okami and less Smite, please.

9. Micro, not Macro
Games like The World Ends With You proved that games don't have to have realistic sizing to work
Sandbox games with large explorable worlds are definitely popular ('Skyrim' will show up in the Oxford English Dictionary at this rate), but I've always found them a little unsatisfying. For all the landscape, the inhabitants - especially ones that aren't plot relevant - feel weak and soulless. I'm not easily immersed in my video games, but the game worlds I hold the most dear aren't the largest, but put loving detail into every inhabitant and the lives they lead. One of the many things that made The World Ends With You my favourite game.

10. Vampires
There's something about the blood-suckers that are so...appealing. Castlevania taught us that.
For real. Way cooler than zombies. You can't argue with Castlevania.

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance (3DS)

This review can also be found at The Yorker, here.

As I've said in the past, the Kingdom Hearts games are a slave to their narrative. Regardless of your opinions on whether the plot of the series is any good or not (It's not very good); there are now 7 games all part of the same story - of which Dream Drop Distance is the latest in terms of both release and chronologically. To properly appreciate a new game in the series, it almost requires a working knowledge of the previous entries. And that's a bad thing.

©Square Enix

KH3D tries to mitigate this with in-game reference material and flashbacks to the game's past events - but to the newcomer, the convoluted path that leads plucky anime teens Sora and Riku to an all-important quest that involves 'diving into the dreams of sleeping worlds' is confusing, and ultimately feels irrelevant. It's almost as if Square Enix want you to ignore the overarching plot altogether, which may really be for the best.

See, it's not the narrative that has made the Kingdom Hearts series so enjoyable, it's all about spectacle and satisfaction. The spectacle of exploring bright and detailed worlds, and the satisfaction of weighty and involved combat.

In regards to the spectacle, Square Enix definitely took the time to use the 3DS' graphical abilities as effectively as possible. The 3D is strategically used to be more noticeable in cutscenes than gameplay, so while battles do benefit from the depth-of-field, they won't strain your eyes.

The series staple of exploring multiple Disney franchises is of course present, and although they all have shared design aspects to get everything looking cohesive, they're also incredibly distinct through set-pieces and colour use. The clean, geometric and faintly pulsing landscape of the Tron Legacy world caught my interest in ways entirely other to the soft golds, rich purples and towering buildings of the Hunchback of Notre Damme world.

In regards to gameplay satisfaction, every sequel to Kingdom Hearts series has improved on the base mechanics of the original in some way. To those who have played Re:coded on the DS or Birth by Sleep on the PSP, you'll already be at home with the basic setup, but KH3D adds three new (notably huge) features: Parkour, Pokémon, and Narcolepsy.

The opening stage quickly introduces parkour - or 'Flowmotion' as the game insists on calling it. This allows you to slide along rails, swing around poles and spring yourself off walls, all of which gives you incredible freedom of movement and new context-sensitive attacks. The wall-springs work out to be rather imbalanced in the long run, as you quickly find you can use it to scale walls of any height, and you can accidentally trigger it if you try to dodge roll too close to a wall.

Instead of classic Disney characters assisting you as party members, you can summon friendly versions of the enemy 'Dream Eater' monsters you battle throughout the game. The Dream Eater system is very robust. Every monster has its own abilities and AI patterns; they unlock special abilities for you via simple 'skill trees'; and there are even Nintendogs-style minigames for the cuteness factor. The part of me that never grew out of loving Pokémon adores this addition, but it's a shame that because of this system, I can never fight alongside the main characters of each world.

To keep with the theme of 'sleep and dreams' beyond just the plot and the game title, sleep even affects the player characters. The protagonists Sora and Riku are playable in tandem - both exploring the sleeping worlds, but in separate realisations. However, they (for vaguely explained reasons) cannot be awake at the same time. As you play as one character, you'll see a 'Drop Meter' that acts as a timer until they spontaneously fall unconscious, and he counterpart takes over. This can happen literally any time outside of menus and cutscenes. Bosses suddenly become a lot more harrowing when it's against a time limit.

Kingdom Hearts 3D: Dream Drop Distance makes some undeniable design faux-pas. The ability to scale any surface trivialises platforming. Raising Dream Eaters eventually becomes more time consuming than the main combat. The idea of using theming as a limit on you feels just... wrong. And yet, that it keeps the gameplay of the series solidly intact, and still dares to try new ideas and push things even further. And I've gotta give it props for that.

Don't be a stranger - gaming with new housemates

This article can also be found at the Yorker, here.

Dealing with new housemates is difficult. They probably won't clean, they're going to keep you up all hours with music you hate, and lord help you if you let them borrow anything of yours. But unless you can bank on getting your daily dose of human interaction elsewhere, you'll probably want to get to know your housemates better.
And what better means than with video games? (Well, there are lots of better means, but I digress.)
It's very easy to default to FIFA, Call of Duty or similar when thinking about multiplayer household gaming, but those options are a rather limiting - not everyone has a taste for football or first person shooters, so here are a few suggestions to add strings to your friend-making bow.

Mario Kart - Multiple Nintendo Systems

An obvious suggestion, but a good one. Available on any and every Nintendo console post-SNES, you'll struggle to not find it in one form or another. The quality between games is variable (Mario Kart DS is the best one), but in the context of just playing with friends, it matters little. As a bonus, it's incredibly easy to turn it into a drinking game! Personally I like this rule set (should work with all incarnations, works best with Mario Kart: Double Dash!! and onwards):
  • Start a multiplayer race, with 4 tracks picked at random.
  • While racing, any time you are hit with a Red Shell or better, take a drink.
  • At the end of the race, the person who came first (out of the players, computer racers don't count) does not take a drink, 2nd and 3rd place drink once, and 4th place drinks twice.
  • Repeat for all races in the set. At the final standings, 2nd and 3rd place drink twice, 4th place finishes their drink.
  • Drink responsibly. If you end up throwing up I have lost all respect for you.

Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 – PS3 & 360 (Or just fighting games in general)

Fighting games work out to be perfect group entertainment (since it's interesting to watch as well as play), but player skill can be a problem. Two good players competing is dramatic, and two beginner players competing is a great laugh, but if a skilled player is pitted against someone new, the inevitable curbstomping is satisfying to no one (unless the skilled player is a sore winner). MvC3 is a good bet for its easily recognised cast, bright, frantic aesthetics, and a 'simple mode' control scheme for those who aren't confident in their fireball-throwing ability. If it's a game with a large cast, select characters by theme (and take suggestions from those watching to be inclusive!) Some suggestions:
  • Pick a character who went alone to the high school prom.
  • Pick a character who has less than £50 in their savings.
  • Pick a character who has a low tolerance for alcohol.

Kirby's Adventure Wii

Yep. The cutest video game mascot to ever exist is entirely made for Co-Op play, and Kirby's Adventure Wii is the most recent and splendidly made addition to the series. While not a difficult game, it's built around being played by 4 people of any skill level - so anyone can have a blast. And if you're so inclined - enough means to be an evil dick to the other players (not recommended for friend-making). Plus, Kirby is both super cute and super violent in equal measures, so everyone has something to love!

Borderlands & Borderlands 2 – PS3, 360 & PC

If you absolutely must play a game where you ventilate everyone you encounter, Borderlands is enough of an accessible and unusual choice where you can rope in those who would be less likely to play a shooter. Taking on concepts of stats and skills from RPGs, you can work your way across the wasteland with a good weapon, even if your aiming isn't up to snuff. The sequel (released September 21st, just in time for the start of the University year) even has a 'Best Friends Forever' mode that offers skills and special abilities to aid those who are new or terrible at the genre. Personally, that's a godsend.

Free-To-Play Online Games

Okay, hear me out. In situations down the line where you don't have the space at your place to host a gathering, your schedules don't often sync with your friends, or you just don't feel like getting dressed; online gaming is a great way to unwind and still connect with your friends. You need not play a game so demanding of your time and money like World of Warcraft (not that it needs saying); there are plenty of easy to download and play free titles to play in a weekend or a week of free time. The gaming service Steam has a range of free-to-play games (my personal favourite being Spiral Knights), but there's always some cheerful, freshly translated Korean title to try out; and if you can co-ordinate a few friends to join you on your safari, you're bound to have some memorable experiences. MMO Grinder does in-depth reviews on free-to-play games if you need detailed info.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

A Future of Polygonal Friends: Final Comments

This piece is split into three parts (Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here), and was written for the Critical Distance Blogs of the Round Table. 

Thanks for taking the time to read 'A Future of Polygonal Friends'!
This was actually an idea I'd had for a long long time, inspired by an article I read in EDGE magazine, talking about AI in games. My initial angle was actually to talk about how we can design better and more empathic NPCs on the whole, but when I saw Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table request ('Blogger Jam' would be a way better title, no need to thank me), I set out to take my article concept out of the realm of Notepad musings, and into a properly published format.

And wow. This essay is way too long, hardly ideal for putting on the web. But I felt that to explore the idea in a way that doesn't make people frantically sprint after my own leaps in logic, the first half was necessary. Plus, since this is written with other media bloggers in mind, hopefully those that stumble across this will make it to the end (clearly you have, or you wouldn't be reading this!)

Honestly, I struggled a little reworking this to fit the theme in a way I felt was complete. Writing about AI and good storytelling are both simple enough, but how do you link the two without sounding like an idiot, vague, or a vague idiot? Then I realised the potential was in AI characters telling their own story separate to that of the protagonist's, intersecting when and where the player wants, and there being consequences for those decisions. Story telling and character design need not act at odds to developing AI, but can work with it.

Forgive the large number of Non-AI examples used in the first half; I feel like examples of good design and dialogue without an emphasis on AI would be an important contrast to AI-based solutions. I won't apologise for making fun of Tropers, Power Ranger fans and Katawa Shoujo fans though; y'all are just asking for it.

A Future of Polygonal Friends: AI & Emotional Attachment (Part 2)

This piece is split into three parts (Part 1 is here, Final Comments are here), and was written for the Critical Distance Blogs of the Round Table. 

In the previous part, we covered the following:
  • Great video game stories need a varied cast.
    • But games often have identikit characters that only feel superficially unique.
  • To give characters depth, they need unique and varied dialogue.
    • But dialogue reacting to context is very uncommon.
    • Characters that say little or repeat often are very jarring.
    • Dialogue trees are a possible solution, but have limitations.
Those issues can be solved with some experienced and skilful writing, but there’s a way to both alleviate those flaws, and progress in interesting directions – the inclusion of AI.

What does AI entail? 

Artificial Intelligence is essentially a system of search engines. Put that way it’s not particularly glamorous, but that’s the truth. Artificial Intelligence has been around since the 1950s, and has been the target of obsession by both engineers and science fiction writers of varying quality.

While a lot of our modern technology already has a measure of AI to make our lives easier (even the Auto-Correct on your phone is an AI), we romanticise the idea of social, humanised machines that can be our best friend – or cruellest enemy. And autonomously at that. This is definitely relevant for video games – any character action that’s designed to happen in a way out of the player’s control – however slight – is the result of AI programming.

Narrative writing and AI are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It’s a reasonable point of contention – “How can something not controlled by the player be part of the story?” Most games keep story and gameplay as separate concepts – since if the story is places out of the players hands, there’s the chance that they could actually miss out on the story – a scary thought. However, with a little experimentation, and some advances in how we can program and utilise AI, we can blur the line into something unique.

What makes ‘em tick: AI and interaction

NPCs don’t mean a whole lot if the player can’t interact with them. In the vast majority of games, this details ways to fight or kill them. Not a whole lot of design is required to make a to-be-killed NPC 'convincing', as long as their demise is satisfying enough - but for NPCs that exist outside of a need to be mowed-down, the bar is suddenly set a lot higher for responses to player input. Hell, even major names in the games design industry are starting to recognise how important, yet how undervalued NPC AI is.

This is largely down to empathic reasons. We as humans intrinsically know how rational people react to certain situations. If we help someone they're grateful, if we tell a funny joke they laugh, etc. So, when a character - especially an NPC in a game with a narrative focus - behaves in a way that isn't rational human behaviour, it's jarring. When used intentionally it can create an effective unsettling mood; but often occurrences are unintentional, and it breaks whatever 'immersion' the player might be having with the setting.

The problems I’ve brought up in the previous part are closely related to this jarring feeling. Homogeneous characters don’t feel convincing when we know how people can vary so much in real life. Characters with unchanging disposition feel like the Terminator (with maybe fewer homicidal tendencies), and ones with unchanging dialogue are just that much more two-dimensional.

AI can definitely be handled badly. 2005's Façade was a breakthrough in AI and interactive drama, but its open-endedness was its downfall (to ignore the bare bones graphical presentation). Harassing the confused AI became something of a Youtube fad.

AI and Character Design 

Building on the concepts brought up before, this matters to character design diversity since people with different backgrounds are obviously going to think differently. It’s one thing to have a game character act uniquely within the plot, but when it comes to general gameplay, they often behave just like any other ally or enemy. It’s common in RPGs where you can give instructions to AI allies that different allies will act in the same way if given the same instruction (discounting things like different equipment load outs).

The Sims is the all-encompassing example about AI’s effect on character design. Any given character in the game is a bundle of personality traits and quirks, which manifest themselves in any action a Sim will take, even in subtle ways. The Sims 3 raises the curtain a little on how this process works – the player can select five specific personality traits when making a Sim, so the effects of these choices are more obvious. And with the 63 different Traits to choose from (and that's not including the expansions!), you’ll be hard pressed to get two Sims alike by chance.

Charismatic, Dislikes Children, Neurotic, Perceptive, Schmoozer. Me in a nutshell, really.

Applying this to characters out of the player’s hands is definitely an interesting direction to go down. Party members that are different in every way, right down to how they deal with a problem would make them so much more distinct. If these personalities were randomised from game-to-game, no two players would have the same experience.

AI and Character Dialogue 

AI matters to dialogue variety because no one maintains a single way of speaking. We change how we talk depending on who we talk to, or just how we’re feeling at the time. It’s jarring in a game to do something that upsets a character, only for them to go right back to a neutral attitude afterwards.

Animal Crossing, while very simple from a technical perspective, tries very hard to use dialogue and AI effectively. There are only 6 different personality ‘types’ in the game, which over 200 possible villagers can use, but you only ever deal with up to 10 of them at a time, masking the potential repetition. There’s an incredible amount of dialogue, tied to the weather, the time of day, if it’s a special holiday, if the villager is happy or sad… the list goes on. They will even talk to each other, and let you eavesdrop.

To create variation within a single conversation, dialogue trees function perfectly fine in a very controlled way, but the content of a dialogue tree doesn’t often change according to any context other than ‘state of the main plotline’. What’s more, dialogue trees only work if the player is present. Gaming narratives are often incredibly solipsistic – nothing can happen if the player isn’t there to witness or directly affect it, and that’s not how a believable world can function.

The Witcher 2 at the very least uses its dialogue trees in a way less transparent to the player, and with some neat consequences. The small, but incredibly important decision to not display whether a dialogue choice is 'good', 'evil' or otherwise tied to a game mechanic (which many games are guilty of) means that the player isn't so easily yanked out of the narrative when making a decision. What you do decide on ends up having further-reaching consequences than just the next line of text, as characters remember how you treated them, and will pass on the word of how much of an asshole you are to their peers.

Taking a cue from Animal Crossing’s book, and having conversation dialogue triggered by the state of the game world, and using Witcher 2's system of making sure your decisions are remembered down the line, will obscure some of the ‘branches’ of the dialogue tree from the player’s view. Guy Hasson put forth a theoretical way of managing dialogue trees that operate through more than just what the player does.

For those that don’t warrant complex dialogue trees, there are still solutions to give them variation. Here, randomisation is the key – Procedurally Generated sentences. What’s that? Well, since sentences (in any language) have a logical structure, having a computer construct unique utterances from word and phrase banks will save you from ever hearing a “Welcome to Cornelia!” more than once. It’s a solution that rules out voice acting (it’s hard to get artificially constructed voice sample utterances sounding convincing without some heavy editing and knowledge of phonetics), but it still has a definite future in RPGs.

AI and the ‘Simultaneous Story’ 

Animal Crossing and The Sims use AI in a way that creates robust characters, but they can act freely in a game with no overarching narrative. This isn’t to say that those games should adhere to a plotline (the spinoff Sims games that do are… tepidly received), but the big ‘future of video game AI’ lies in the combination of the two.

The key to more convincing, immersive worlds is that it doesn’t expressly revolve around you. Other characters doing their own thing independently of you are only the start. If these characters actually acted out their own stories incidental to your actions, it would be an implementation of subplots on a scale that books and movies definitely can’t match.

It’s an old title, but The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is a very well-made example of a ‘simultaneous story’. Almost every character in the game has an intricately detailed life and schedule. Thanks to the strict three day timeframe the game takes place in, the NPCs can be given pre-programmed daily schedules, so their lives can unfold out around the player.

This is where the line between story writing and AI crafting is blurred a little. With the technology available at the time, having the characters act uniquely and randomly would be too much for the poor old N64, but by framing the NPC actions around set narratives, the amount of AI coding was a lot less intense, and the player has the ability to visit the same events again and again from different perspectives (as they learn more about the plot as a whole).

The Dead Rising titles all function on an in-game clock, with game events tied to it. Plot events will happily occur without you if you aren’t there to intervene, resulting in missed plotlines to major changes like characters dying. The first Dead Rising was incredibly strict with its time limit, making it nearly impossible to see absolutely everything in one run (you are, after all, a reporter – not a superhero). It's a shame that then, for the most part the survivors you encounter are there to be escorted to safety, and not too much else.

AI and the Visual Novel 

I feel like a side mention should go out to the Visual Novel. As the name suggests, it hugs a lot closer to literary storytelling, and for the most part forego AI in its entirety. Likewise, Point ‘n’ Click Adventure games are the text adventures of yore with a graphical polish. This gives them a lot of flak from consumers and critics – how could a genre survive when, in terms of technology, they are so undemanding?

Interestingly, that may be their strength. They are the Dialogue Tree to the extreme – everything is precisely controlled and scripted. But with that, it also means that there is so much more room to write their plots and characters as carefully as possible. They have no veneer of complex gameplay, and often can’t hide behind flashy graphics. The Ace Attorney games and the Monkey Island series contain some of the most complex characters in gaming, at least in terms of background detail and motivation. If any genre is to go the distance in creating deep and empathic NPCs within a narrative, you bet it’ll be a Visual Novel or an Adventure Game.

That, however, doesn’t mean that AI can’t make them more robust experiences. What the characters do when the player isn’t talking to them is just as important as the face-to-face chatting. Christine Love proved that with the background-running social networking in ‘don’t take it personally babe, it just ain’t your story’. Dating Sims corner the market on major characters that interact with the player in ways other than dialogue trees (meaning statistically, not carnally you pervert), but NPCs having a ‘memory’ for what you do and say would be both a lot more involved, and avoids simplifying the nature of relationships to “Choose dialogue option B”.

The future of AI

So what's happening next in the world of video game AI? Well, if you have the free time, take a look at Prom Week, a cute flash game that takes up the idea of generated conversations, and lets you experiment with them, reminiscent of The Sims, but with actual dialogue. Designed by Mike Treanor and a small crew of game designers from Santa Cruz university, it constructs sentences to feel unique, based on context, and how interacting characters feel about each other. The game challenges you to set up the characters to certain goals, but it's still relatively easy to orchestrate the right outcomes since the behaviour feels so genuine.

Prom Week is about its AI system through and through, but you only need aspects of its concept to bring an old game somewhere new. Imagine if LA Noire remembered the reputation you made for yourself; carrying out your investigations kindly, with ruthless efficiency, or like an Actual Cop.

The biggest AI breakthroughs are going to take a long time, and it might take even longer to use them to craft a game world that tells a really great story. A game where the subplots both operate independently of the player, but are also organically reflecting the player choices is a risky, big budget venture. And NPC that truly feels like a person when held up to the cold harsh light of gameplay may never even happen. But I remain hopeful. One day then, my enjoyment of video game stories won’t feel so sordid.

Read on to Final Comments.

A Future of Polygonal Friends: AI & Emotional Attachment (Part 1)

This piece is split into three parts (Part 2 is here, Final Comments are here), and was written for the Critical Distance Blogs of the Round Table. 


Some people read Playboy for the ‘articles’. Some people watch films for the celebrity roles. I play games for the story writing and characters. It’s my dirty secret.

The quality of script writing in games can barely even scratch the quality of what would constitute a ‘good’ film or novel, but I have a major soft spot for when a game wants to spin me a fable, or endear me to characters. Because writing a decent script for a game is apparently so damn hard, the industry focus is elsewhere; AAA titles push heavily for graphical fidelity and larger worlds to explore.

I feel that the next big step for games is improving how they tell a story – and that’s not just a plea for the industry to wean me off my addiction to charmingly ineffectual narratives. There are so many ways to go about stepping up the storytelling in games, critics could write (or argue) about it for months, but here I’m going to focus on character-driven storytelling.

To support a great character-driven narrative, you'll need... well, great characters. But if the only properly fleshed-out character is the protagonist, a player will have a hard time getting emotionally invested. While a well-written character in a story or a film can feel believable just by just watching them, video games are an interactive medium. We can prod a character, and we watch how they react with scrutiny.

In those cases, traditional writing can only take you so far – it’s the Artificial Intelligence of a game character that breathes more life into them.

But before I talk about what we can do with AI, there are some key topics aspects to cover first, more to do with writing skill than technical – and will use some examples from games where AI isn't a factor. It will also bring up potential writing and design problems that we'll come back to in the second part. All in good time.

Variety is the spice: Character design of the cast

It's very easy to formulate a cast of characters for any video game setting. The number of RPG characters with almost predestined personalities to fit in with their profession; the hardened crew of soldiers in any FPS (don't forget the token black one!); the full rainbow of 'sexy' feminine personalities the hero can bump uglies with. When you’re trying to get the character design process out of the way so other aspects can we worked on (which is a terrible idea by the way, but it definitely does happen), falling back on a familiar pattern to construct a cast is a tempting idea.

The laziest pattern is what I like to call 'Super Sentai casting'. Did you ever watch Power Rangers as a kid? Or maybe you're an adult child and are still watching it – whichever. In every series they have a cast of around five, and their characters are the result of some kind of MadLibs-by-committee, something like this:

___ is one of the ___ youths with attitude, representing the colour ___ and the legendary ___. Their general passion is ___, and they're the ___ of the group.

Pretty ridiculous. What's more ridiculous is that video games, even ones that are meant to be heavily character-focused, still write their cast like this. Take Katawa Shoujo (lit. ‘Cripple Girls’):

___ is one of the students at a school for the disabled. She suffers from ___ but wants to ___ in spite of this. Her ___ reveals her 'true beauty', and you help her with ___ so you can eventually get up in dem guts.

What these MadLibs designs lead to is a homogeneous cast. Everyone being of the same demographic leads to pigeonholed personality traits to set them apart. (The Japanese Otaku culture has a huge number of words to describe these personality tropes).

Even otherwise good games can fall victim to it. Persona 4’s main cast is all very similar in age, background, and role in the story – though that’s partially down to thematic reasons, and they are instead humanised by putting their insecurities at the forefront. ‘Tough, but Kind-on-the-inside’ Kanji isn’t an especially complex character, but the struggles he has with his sexuality are very human and identifiable.

It means that in the end, you’re asking people to empathise with an idea; a cluster of memes and implicated cues, rather than an honest attempt at making something human. Chicken Nuggets compared to an actual chicken. This works out okay in some situations – and for some people – but some stories just cannot be told effectively with a hollow or homogeneous cast.
The very best game casts have characters from all walks of life, so not only are they unique physically, but their experiences and world views are also in contrast. It can even help improve games that are otherwise lacking.
For example, take Lux-Pain for the DS. A Visual Novel, it wasn’t incredibly well-received due to haphazard mechanics ideas that don’t go anywhere, the cheesy premise of a high school-aged secret agent investigating mysterious goings on, and an absolutely god awful English translation. And yet, its wide and varied cast gave it some serious charm. You encounter students, teachers, shop keepers, even television personalities – and underneath the… unfortunate dialogue, there’s some simple but passionate backstory and character motivation.
Shunichi Inagaki is just your average nightclub owner – he's not even connected to the mystery Lux-Pain revolves around. But he's still appears, going about his daily business. As you talk to him, you find out about his family, his relationships with other members of the cast – and if you take the time to read the dossier files that slowly fill in as you play, he's rather ham-fistedly implied to be gay. Appreciated, though not artful. As friendly and relaxed as he is, not even Shunichi manages to escape the bad translation.
The translation team was apparently a group of around 10 in India. It shows.

Bioware’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect series get huge fan followings for their cast alone. In both the Grey Wardens and your interstellar crew, you are partnered with casts so diverse, they aren’t even all human. On a level, that feels like a slightly cheap way of adding cast diversity, but it does give scope to including perspectives that can’t be (safely) attributed to human culture.
The lack of diversity in video game casts is very much a social problem, and game designers limit themselves – or try to diversify and fail – for a few reasons. Maybe they’re not confident in writing characters of a demographic different to themselves. Maybe they don’t have the time and resources to design complicated casts (in which case they should probably manage their budget better). More likely, they’re fearful of what might happen if they don’t pander to the less-than-liberal consumer base that aren’t interested in characters that don’t fulfil their power- or sexual-fantasies. Or the TV Tropes crowd who can only process media that’s heavily compartmentalised.
The quality and diversity of a cast is only going to change significantly when social attitudes change, and the ETA relies heavily on your optimism.
Words, words, words (and actions): Dialogue style and variation
A problem that affects all media is dialogue diversity – it’s not uncommon to have a work where all the characters speak in a manner very similar to that of the writer. The writer knows how they sound, and so by writing in their own ‘voice’ as it were, it’s easy to write in a way that’s (superficially) convincing. But when too many characters sound similar, the suspension of disbelief falls apart, and no one sounds convincing.
In practice, this only really affects games without voice acting – with the dialogue voiced, characters will naturally vary linguistically (unless all characters are voiced by the same actor, but that would just be silly). So in a way, technological progress in game design has solved this one. But there are obviously still instances where games can’t afford – or just don’t need – voice acting, so bearing this in mind is still important. 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors has a wonderfully varied cast – and a very good story in general – but due to the game’s philosophical (and pseudoscientific) themes, all the characters know a whole lot about prosopagnosia or Ice-9 for reasons not always explained, and sound very similar when discussing it.
Who would think that this lady had just explained 5 minutes worth of 'morphic resonance'?

Furthermore, it’s not just how a character speaks, but how often. It’s difficult to love a character who doesn’t communicate with you very often (not that it stops fans from writing smutty fanfiction about them, but still). ‘Communication’ need not require dialogue (an obligatory mention to Ico and Journey here), but even then, a limited range of expressions can leave conversations one-sided, and characters feeling flat.
A game could have a wide range of NPCs, and have them be story relevant, but if they say precious little, or worse, are prone to repeating the same thing often, then it drags you out of the experience; the grand play ruined by a cast member repeatedly yelling about mud crabs.
Catherine handles dialogue incredibly well. It has a lot of dialogue with characters that are incidental to the overall plot, and they continually change what they have to say over the course of the game. Obviously they have a limit, but the game sidesteps a situation where the player unintentionally causes dialogue to repeat by marking when a character has said all the useful information they have to offer.
Limited or repetitive dialogue is eased in many modern games by having dialogue trees in major conversations (which has definite flaws; I’ll elaborate in the second part). At the very least it ensures that the major characters don’t just exist to spout the minimum of dialogue to push the plot along, but it would be a total failure of pacing to employ this with every single character in a game, along with taking way too much effort to implement.
Okay, that covers the ground work. In the second part, I’ll be talking about AI as a concept, how it relates to the above, and where we can go from here.

Read on to Part 2.