NBI Talkback Challenge #1

Although I am not formally a part of the Newbie Blogger Initiative, I think that it is an awesome idea and will do my best to support it or at least participate in some of the suggested topics/talkback challenges. Who knows? Maybe I will start posting more than once or twice a month…

How did GamerGate affect me?
It for the most part didn’t. It’s not necessarily a socio-political thing as it is a, “I don’t let other people’s actions affect my enjoyment of things that I enjoy” thing. People who grief and discriminate based off of something as silly as one’s gender simply aren’t worth keeping in your life. So if someone is going to be a dramatic blow hard, I hope that they realize how petty they look to everyone else; That applies to both men and women.

I am fortunate enough to have never really felt limited by my gender (yes, I am female). Though I do feel that it is important to be mindful of one’s gender, mostly for the sake of social awareness, it is just not something that I place all that much weight on and to be honest, has never been all that relevant to my occupation, gaming, or any of my other hobbies (it’s silly categorizing activities as being strictly male or strictly female unless they involve genitalia I suppose.)

Besides, my whole life has been a sequence of one “unladylike activity” after another another and not really caring about what other people thought. I guess that’s just the way that I was raised. So if GamerGate did have any affect on me it would be: General awareness as to how fortunate I am.

The Early Access Game Problem

Early access game programs are tricky because there’s no definitive line as to when they are and are not appropriate; They fall into a gray area. An early access program can make perfect sense for certain titles whereas for others, no so much. Minecraft I suppose, would be the natural example of an early release title that has succeeded to almost an extreme extent, I would say mostly in part to it being on a continuous development cycle. Though it had a hard release date separating the full release of Minecraft from the alpha and beta, it’s just one of those games that receives regular updates that adds game content beyond the standard bug fix patch.

So, for games like Minecraft, games that have developers who are transparent about the state of their game, what is planned for it, when updates will be released, and so forth, early access programs are great and make a lot of sense. However, for every jewel, there has to be at least a dozen games with frustratingly slow updates or worse yet, games that seem to completely stall out once they receive their initial influx of cash. It is within those types of titles that the problem lies. Overall, using an unfinished game as a business strategy concerns me and I feel that it sets a bad precedent as it can and well, to be honest has, created the opportunity to use early access programs as a means for lazy funding. At worse, it can be abused as a blatant cash grab ala The War Z scandal.

I feel that retailers who have early access programs, need to be more apparent the a game is in pre-release and that the consumer is purchasing a title that is not yet complete. For example, DLC releases on Steam have a purple colored tag on the upper left corner of the game portrait. This tag is visible when viewing games on the front page and makes it fairly easy to see that a particular title is downloadable content and not a standalone game. It would be nice if early access games had something similar.

I do not think that a game developer or publisher should treat or advertise and early release title as if it were complete; That’s just…deception. I also feel that at the very least, a rough timeline if planned releases and what not should be added for the consumer’s benefit. It would also be nice to have some way of filtering out all early release games from the store. It just feels kind of shitty, in my personal opinion, when most of the games on the front page of Steam are early access titles; Lastly, a title that has been posted for early release should be fair game for reviews. Lastly, a title that has been posted for early release should be fair game for reviews. If you feel that your game is presentable and playable enough to the point where you are willing to charge the general public to download and play it, then you should be ready to accept any criticism, whether the actual game is finished or not.

There really isn’t anything wrong with offering a game for early release per se, so long as the developer/publisher is transparent about the state at which the game is being released in as well as with overall development progress. Ultimately, consumers do have the power to choose what they do and do not want to buy, early access release games included. Don’t want to play a game that’s not 100% finished? Well, there’s really nothing forcing you to. And to that extent, as long as it isn’t outright deception, I really have a difficult time feeling too bad for anyone who gets burned buying into a flopped early release. As a general rule of thumb, take a look at the status of the game that you are thinking of purchasing. If you would not be satisfied should development on the title suddenly halt, then you may want to reconsider your purchase.

There is certainly a risk that a sub-par game will be released or that the game project will be abandoned altogether; There have already been several cases in which this has happened. But that sort of risk is in the nature of buying a product before it has been finished. If you don’t like it, don’t support it or at the very least, do your homework on the studio and the progress of the game before dishing out cash. Also remember: You still do have the option of waiting for a more complete and polished product to be released. It boils down to patience I suppose.

Squall Isn’t THAT Bad of a Character

Finally approaching the end of my Final Fantasy VIII playthough; I have been picking it up on-and-off this past month (mostly off lately, but I hope to at least ummm finish the game at some point in the near future). There are several things that I really like about FFVIII: The pseudo-futuristic/modern setting, the characters (most of them at least), and the fact that it is ultimately a character driven story (versus being politically driven for example). That said, I had forgotten how odd and polarizing this game was. I am trying to think of another JRPG as or close to as polarizing as FFVIII and I really can’t think of any. I suspect the main reasons being: Bizarre gameplay mechanics/character progression, ludicrous plot, and Squall. Squall of course having been crowned as the gaming champion of emo.

When I had originally played this game as a teen I disliked Squall as a protagonist, but as an adult, I don’t really understand why Squall garners so much hate. He is sort of tactless if not a bit rude and definitely socially distant, but he’s not really all that emo or angsty in my opinion. He is a good student and works hard to complete the missions as professionally as possible. Amongst his peers, he’s probably one of the least emo given that the task of baby sitting a group of bipolar teenagers is suddenly thrust upon him. Let’s review:

  • Quistis, his instructor (he was not aware that she had been relieved of that position at the time), takes him aside out of class for the sake of hitting on him and using him as a receptacle for all of her personal issues. So awkward and inappropriate.
  • Zell “I need Ritalin” Dincht is unable to appropriately channel his bountiful energy and enthusiasm in an appropriate manner or direction that does not involve annoying people in the middle of a life-and-death mission.
  • Irvine, a horndog cowboy who clearly cannot keep it in his pants. Freezes up at the most critical point in the mission.

It is also worth noting that at least half of Squall’s dialog is in head. It’s unfair to judge him by his internal monolog as he does manage to keep most of his shitty thoughts to himself, unlike the rest of the cast. It’s not that he is cold hearted, it’s that he is an introverted character among a group of distinctly extroverted characters that in contrast make him appear more apathetic than he really is. That said, “whatever” is probably the most irritating quotation in the game…

The Extended Mass Effect 3 Ending

Spoilers for the Mass Effect 3 Ending. The Extended Cut is just that by the way in that the new content presents a more rounded, fleshed out conclusion in comparison to the original spartan ending sequence. What it does not do however is fundamentally change the outcome(s) of the game in any significant way; So anyone who at heart was unhappy with the original ending as a whole is likely to remain so after playing through the DLC.

What the new content does accomplish is to fill in the gaps by adding in more dialogue and animation sequences to smooth out some of the logical inconsistencies lingering behind. For example, why the Normandy seemingly ran away from the fight and how the crew was picked up off of the ground. Quite a bit of additional dialogue was added, allowing Shepard question the Catalyst about the consequences of each path. Also most importantly, new content was added so that each option feels distinct. IE: The endings are now more than the explosion color being green or red.

There is also more of a sense of closure. I really liked the sequence at the end; Showing the Normandy’s crew hanging his name plate on the memorial wall was a touching moment, a nice personal addition to the game’s ending, and an overall fitting farewell; Which is really all that we were asking for in the first place. Also worth noting: A completely new path was added, allowing you to take no action effectively let the world burn (look it up on YouTube, it’s well worth a watch). I am fine with a tragic ending. One could after all, argue that the series has always had a religious connotation (his name IS Shepard and he does tend to his flock I guess) and it’s not too far fetched of an idea to believe that the only appropriate conclusion would involve Shepard, the galaxy’s savior dying at the end for our sins (to complete the metaphor).

But that said, now that I have played through the new content, I am still dissatisfied with the ending as a whole. Why? A commenter on Reddit (or wherever) hit the nail on the head: BioWare gave Mass Effect 3 a Gainax Ending (the name stems from Gainax, the studio that produced Neon Genesis Evangelion. A Japanese animated series with a notorious ending). Basically, a Gainax Ending lacks resolution and is presented in a manner that does not make sense, usually as a mind fuck but a bizarre layer of bullshit philosophy thrown in from left field always seems to be involved.

One of the primary reasons why I enjoy Mass Effect is because of the believable character stories, which has in my opinion at least has always been one of BioWare’s strong points. The setting and overarching plot are decent but to be honest, not too far off from standard science fiction fair (good versus evil robot wars are a dime a dozen nowadays). The characters and relationship dynamics as they affect the player character are what really sets the game apart from other similarly themed titles. So, when you take that element out of the picture, the story loses all meaning and connection to the point where it feels at best, detached and at worst, widely inappropriate. I wanted the ending to ultimately be about the character relationships that we have so carefully created and not a faux layer of metaphysical crap about Shepard transcending human form.

The ending, though more fleshed out feels cheap in that the game still does not lead up to the ending sequence as it should. Paragon or Renegade, no matter how you chose to play the games, spending possibly hundreds of hours doing so, you are still presented with the same options at the end. Fatalism or not, having all of your decisions thrown out of the window in a game distinctly featuring and built around the ability to manipulate the outcome of your story by the power of choice feels particularly insulting. Also along those lines: I also strongly dislike the catalyst. He feels like something someone pulled out of their ass at the last minute, I loved everything about the game up until that point (specifically through Anderson’s death scene). Deus ex Machina is a weak plot device that feels forced and contrived. It is a lazy way of resolving conflicts without having to legitimately explain anything.

Despite my objections, I am glad that they didn’t completely cave in and redact the ending. Love it or the it, it is what it is.

Post Response: On Forced Multiplayer

Found this quotation link via Destructoid and Edge earlier this week regarding forced multiplayer in single player games:

If you’re doing it just to check a box or because every other publisher says you’ve got to have multiplayer, then just drop it, don’t bother, it’s a waste of time, a giant distraction and it’ll make for a worse overall game.

We want the best game possible. If that’s a singleplayer game that’s 15 to 20 hours, then make that! Don’t waste your time on features that don’t make the game better.

YES. PLEASE. Dear lord, no more forced multiplayer. I mean, I “enjoy” good multiplayer games as much as most average gamers but, if it’s half-assed it’s just a waste of time and money that detracts from the game as a whole. So, instead of having a solid singleplayer game or a solid multiplayer game, you now have neither. That sucks.

Very few companies are able to balance a good single player game with a solid multiplayer experience without fucking one or both aspects up badly. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Uncharted 2 are the only games that I can think of in recent memory that do a decent job (as little of the multiplayer as I have played). The Call of Duty series has a pretty decent singe player experience but honestly, it’s $60 for a 4 hour campaign. You are, more or less, paying for the multi-player game.

Single-City Games


I fell victim to the office plague this past week and ended up spending a beautiful weekend indoors; So, this post as well as half of my Netflix queue was the result. I kind of wanted to do a series of posts on both world building as well a case study of several of the games cited in this entry as well as several others: Return to Krondor, Baldur’s Gate II and a couple of others are also single city games widely regarded as pretty decent. But I don’t think I have the time or interest to play through some of those games again, since it has been so long. Anyway, I think that city settings have been a fairly popular tabletop RPG setting; Either as a part of a larger campaign or some sort of one off story. But how well do they translate into video game narratives and what is needed in order to craft a good city?

Video games RPGs, unlike their pen and paper brethren obviously do not have the luxury of an imaginative game master to make up new and interesting things throughout the course of the campaign. The game engine must fulfill that roll; Often with many limitations. One of which is the challenge of creating diversity within a smaller environment. Typically, most large game cities only have about 4 or 5 “zones”, perhaps up to 10 if you include surrounding areas and stuff like that. Fewer areas should in theory mean that more effort needs to be placed into making each area feel unique.

I think what most games do is create a microcosm of a normal sized game world, offering tastes of the same kind of experiences, but laid out in a compact manner. So instead of exploring a small town to break a tense moment, perhaps you settle into a quiet inn. Instead of a lush forest, a large city park or garden might do. The city sewers can and well, frequently do in just about every game, serve as a dungeon crawl or a means of connecting various zones. Above all else: A small map isn’t an excuse for grossly reusing layouts and artwork, that’s just rushing the game or lazy art direction. If reuse shows in a standard RPG, it REALLY shows in a game with effectively only one major city. I really like it when different areas utilize a different lighting scheme, different color pallet, different architecture to create a different atmosphere from one area to another.

Even greater attention to detail needs to be put into creating the game environment. For example, where is the city located? Is it located in a moist area? Then perhaps lots of mold and damp wood rot may make sense within poorer sectors. But for a city located within an extremely sandy arid  environment, probably not. Also, for what it’s worth: Windy confusing paths look great on paper but often end up being a huge pain in the ass. If I have to repeatedly visit a zone, please don’t make it a pain in the ass to navigate. Along similar lines, ginormous cities need some kind of travel system (as in GTA sized cities or cities with MANY loading zones).

The player doesn’t have to be a city native, but s/he should feel strongly tied to it and greatly involved in city life. One means of achieving that is to actually have a city life. As in, make the city as believable as possible within the world’s boundaries. Obviously, a magical flying city from another dimension might operate on a few different rules but nonetheless, a players will connect better with a city that makes sense. Alien environments are very distancing (which in itself can be apart of the game). Most cities, real or fake have the following elements:

  • Basic needs: Fake cities without sufficient housing feel even more fake. Everyone needs a place to live and that place often tells you a lot about both the city and that NPC (again, details are good!) Generally speaking, poorer areas tend to be more densely populated.
  • Government and social strata: Who rules the city and what social class systems are in place? A king, a warlord, a council and an archbishop are all possible leaders, each having different motivation and a different nemesis. Political atmosphere!
  • Factions: Pretty similar to the item above. What groups are present within the city and how does that affect the player and story as a whole? I guess it’s kind of a trope at this point within certain types of games but, a popular game mechanic seems to be, to force the player to choose one faction over another. Who you side with offers a very specific point of view and will often offer different quest options, even to the point of significantly changing the game.
  • Law: Is there a criminal system? If you commit a crime in open daylight, will the guards react and how? I mean, they better do something if you run up and punch someone…What level of violence is tolerated within the city? Within each zone? Is magic tolerated?

RPG Cities need lots of NPCs. Lots and lots of NPCs. Not only that, but NPCs that interact with each other and react to player actions. NPCs need dynamic daily and nightly routines other than standing in one spot all day or pacing between two buildings. Characters should interact with each other. As much as I loved the Dragon Age series, I don’t feel that Kirkwall was a very good example of a lively city. There are a couple of NPCs wandering around aimlessly who never seem to speak at all. But for the most part, most of the NPCs within Kirkwall are planted in a single spot. That’s not something that I would expect from a new release.

I like the dynamic crowd handling in the Assassin’s Creed series. If there is a large group of people, I kind of expect at least some of them to react for a short period of time if a person next to them gets stabbed in the face. Bonus points if there is a chain panic reaction. The ability to bump into people and to have that animation play through appropriately is grossly underrepresented (versus having NPCs slide like cardboard boxes). It made the Assassin’s Creed locations feel like bustling cities even though every single one of those NPCs was an AI clone with a limited set of canned responses. The NPC types were also placed in their appropriate zones; Poor zones would have impoverished looking folks and so forth.

This was the part where I kind of wanted to compare similar areas from various different games of varying different ages. But for the time being, The Witcher 2 and Dragon Age: II will have to do. I know that it isn’t all valid of a comparison given that TW2 isn’t a “one city game”, but it’s close enough. Also to be honest, I was too lazy to load more games to take more screenshots. Anyway, I don’t know exactly how to describe it, but for a city that you spend most of the game in, Kirkwall looks and feels amazingly sterile. Consider the following somewhat random set of screenshots from Dragon Age: II.

2011-03-08_00005 2011-06-28_00002 2011-06-28_00005

And then even more random screenshots from The Witcher II. Sorry, these were the only “decent and on-topic” screenshots within my Steam directory.

2011-06-03_00005 2011-06-04_00014

Look at the difference in environment design, particularly the texturing and object density. Why is low town so plain? I want to be able to taste the stink and sick dripping off of every slimy piece of stone and every rotting piece of wood. Dragon Age II is very nice looking, but it feels plain, if not somewhat barren. Actually, I think what bugs me the most is that most of the areas feel awkwardly large with awkwardly wide avenues and awkwardly large areas of almost nothing. I feel as if more NPCs with actual crowd mechanics would have filled some of the empty spots. I’m not sure if for example, Assassin’s Creed is all that “varied” in terms of number of textures used in certain areas, object density, etc, but the crowd mechanics really make a difference.

Post Response: The “Japanese Game Decline”

This post was interesting and spurred some interesting conversation on Kotaku, Destructoid, etc:

Because we merged with Eidos and had games like Tomb Raider, Deus [Ex], and Hitman, as a company we were able to keep face. But the decline in Japanese titles was almost humiliating. This has been a week where I worried daily about how we can fix this.

Ironically, Japanese titles were what attracted me to video gaming back in the late 80’s and early 90’s (look, I just dated myself, hah). We had a Nintendo before we had a personal computer. Much fun was had playing Mario, Final Fantasy, Mega Man, etc. Good times.

His post seems like a fair concern, though perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. We can probably though, all safely say that Square Enix’s slice of the market is in decline based on the quality of their latest releases but the entire gaming industry? Eh maybe so maybe not. I have a sneaky feeling that the Japanese titles that are decent aren’t being localized over here because they are either deemed too niche or just didn’t sell well enough in Japan to justify the expense. Square Enix’s problems more-or-less seems to be a problem with the way Square Enix handles things.

Then again, for every clever JRPg and clever Japanese puzzle/attorney game, there are at least a dozen crap-ass filler titles. I really wish that certain Japanese game developers would stop catering to fanboys and weeaboos. Please cut it with the games pandering to Western audiences, but made by developers who do not understand what Western audiences want and what the current trends are. Also, especially stop the moe shit; It’s creepy and borderline pedophilia.I really love games that retain the Japanese aesthetics and culture but aren’t afraid to push gameplay boundaries. Worry about the writing, gameplay and art direction, not if a game is going to be too “Japanese-y”. Besides, I am of an opinion that a legitimately good game story surpasses cultural boundaries.

I just don’t feel that the Japanese gaming industry as a whole have met the maturing tastes of gamers as a whole. The average age of the American video gamer is 37 years old, having played for 12 years according to fairly recent statistics (side thought: what does that study consider gaming? If stuff like FarmVille is included, that stat is bullshit). That statistic is actually up from an average age of 33 in 2006 (also from an ESA study). Teenagers with super powers saving the world have a very limited appeal to that demographic. If anyone has a similar study for the Japanese gaming market, please link it. Very interested in reading that.

Though to be fair, a similar argument can be made of the Call of Duty series or any number of popular shooters. I love them all to death, but even I am getting a little bit tired of nitty-gritty, gray area morality shooters done in a brown color pallet. To be even more honest, I am thinking that the BioWare style choice RPG system is starting to wear a little thin (I love love love your games but they are kind of all the same). Gaming fads come and gaming fads go; Move with them or fall into obscurity. Who knows, 12 year old bishounen pony superheroes could be next year’s thing…or not. Different strokes for different folks I guess.

Musings on the EVE Online Trial


EVE Online’s meta-game has always fascinated me, though I have always had the sneaky feeling that EVE is just going to be one of those games that is more fun to read about than to actually play, to me at least. So, out of curiosity (and boredom) I registered for the 14 day trial earlier this week. Just as a preface: I have not in all honestly, had much of a chance to play the EVE Online trial for all that long. I am sure that it is an absolute blast once you get past the steep learning curve as well as the awful interface, and that I should really give it more of a chance before passing my final judgement, but it just feels so unrewarding at the moment.

Perhaps it is because I have played WoW, as well as a smattering of other similar MMOs for nearly a decade; Or perhaps it is because ultimately, EVE isn’t what I want from a multi-player game at the time. Either way, my initial impression is not all that positive. Then again, I am unsure that I am willing or really have the time to invest myself in another “long term gaming project.” I appreciate EVE for what it is: A truly different MMORPG, but it seems to be different in a manner that does not interest me. The heart of the issue for is that EVE is a cost vs reward problem: If I spend enough playing this game, I’m sure I will find something enjoyable about it, but why would I want to? Why would I ever want to spend that much time playing a game before getting any sort of reward about it. Perhaps this is a petty issue but, I expect some instant gratification in all of the games that I play. If a game isn’t fun then it is a waste of my time.

I will say one thing though: Holy Jesus taco, EVE Online has an absolutely abhorrent user interface. What a horrible clusterfuck of windows with the most unintuitive work flow ever. It’s like Windows 3.1 in spaaaaace. Also, what’s with the font size? Is there a way to increase EVE’s text size without reducing my screen resolution within the game? I know that you can modify the font within the game options but it isn’t good enough. I seriously cannot read most of the text without leaning into the computer screen. It would be awesome of there was a font size slider or a way to unlock the UI scale from screen resolution (kind of like the WoW option).

EVE is a fantastic looking game graphically, but past that I don’t think it gives new players a good first impression. The tutorial feels largely incomplete as well as poorly laid out. For example: One of the first items that you learn is how to outfit your ship with a  repair module. The problem is that, installing the module requires 1 skill in Hull Repair, which was also a part of the tutorial a bit earlier. Unless you took an extraordinarily long amount of time on the previous tutorial step, odds are that you are going to have to sit and do nothing at the space dock for about 5 to 10 minutes while that skill finishes training. Also the tutorial missions: Spend a couple of minutes flying to a location, spend 30 seconds clicking on something, spend a couple of more minutes flying back. Awkward pacing. Please don’t tell me that the entire game is like this?

There is little to no guidance in terms of which skills would be favorable to train and why. I mean, it’s easy enough to just Google but still, some guidance would be appreciated. The tutorial missions do an okay job at introducing the bare basics of the game, but I don’t feel like it even attempted to capture my interest or tease me of the awesome things to come. Space is apparently a large and beautiful place with a long and boring commute. Poop covered cake is still covered with poop.

PS: EVE has one of the best character creation systems that I have seen in any game.

Video Games and the Test of Time

I can recall marvelling in awe at how beautifully crafted certain games were back in the day. But now, it is really really really difficult to get past how old some games look. Even with old favorites like Final Fantasy VII. Hell, even games that aren’t that old are starting to lose their graphical appeal. I was going through my Steam library and had started up a new Mass Effect game over the weekend and was a bit surprised at how old it had already looked. Now, I know better and know that it is an excellent game, but what will people think in 5 years? 10 years? How well do video games really age?

Games in the first person seem to inherently age poorer than other genres because of the focus on graphics. First person shooters, with exceptions of course, do not tend to differ much between titles in terms of gameplay and story. So in most cases, nostalgia and game historical value aside, you aren’t missing much by not playing an older FPS. I’m trying to think of older titles (90s through early 00s) from this genre that still appeal to me. There aren’t too many besides Half-Life and a handful of others (that I cannot recall at the moment).

Games that have stylized graphics and clear art direction age better than games that choose not to focus on either of those elements. Love or hate the way World of Warcraft appears, but it still looks pretty damned good for a 6 year old game. I can appreciate effort spent crafting a zone instead of covering it with a new 3D engine. And obviously, games focusing more on gameplay and other gaming elements age well. I reckon that one version of Tetris is almost as good as another version of Tetris. I don’t think that puzzle games lose much after a couple of years.

Even other forms of media suffer from a similar problem: For every Cassablanca, there are at least a hundred throwaway movies that no one will ever see again. Films aren’t immune to time either. This issue is also relative to its audience. Many classical films, no matter how historically significant, are going to be barely palatable to audiences born outside of a certain time frame (young people!). I can appreciate old black and white films as an art form, but I wasn’t born in that era and don’t feel any sort of nostalgia for them.

Art is art and music is music. I think that there is some element about certain types of media that inherently make it age poorly. Are there currently any games that can be considered  “timeless?” Will there ever be?

Video Games and Storytelling

This entry was supposed to be a comment post in response to a Kotaku article that I forgot to bookmark (note to self: check phone later). It kind of went astray and turned itself into one giant thing. I am pretty sure that I am rehashing at least one or two previous posts, but I don’t feel like checking. Anyway, as I gather, video game storytelling methods fall somewhere on or between these two spectrums

  1. Open-ended storytelling: Your story is your own and it is one that organically immerses as a result of gameplay. The game provides the necessary tools and settings. In some cases, a rough direction or purpose, but your goals and what you do to achieve them are your own to decide.
  2. Linear storytelling: These games have a specific story to narrate with a very specific cast and setting. Think of an interactive book.

Most games seem to fall somewhere in the middle, probably leaning more towards being linear as most games have a fairly defined story. It’s a tricky balancing act and treading on the paper thin border between being too open and too linear is no small feat. In fact, I would say that it is one of if not the most challenging aspects of crafting a video game story. A game that is too open lacks guidance and gives way to a non-cohesive story. When you unleash players upon your world there is always a risk that they will get sidetracked and forget about the main storyline, often to the point of becoming bored and dropping the game all-together.

On the other hand, being too linear hinders gameplay. Games should be designed to be experienced and not just told. Never underestimate the importance of interactive content within an interactive game. Linear stories are a tightly kept package, everything from the camera angles to the pacing needs to be delicately crafted without feeling forced. Even so, even linear games need choices and choices need consequences. You want the player to feel like their actions have an impact on the outcome of the game, whether they really do or not. It is essentially giving the player an illusion of choices. This kind of balance is rarely found and difficult to achieve, but artful when properly executed.

Ultimately, by definition, the focus of a game should be with the gameplay. Many of my favorite games are able to integrate the narrative with the gameplay into one seamless package. Portal for example, the gameplay pretty much was the narrative. I like the recent immersion trend in first person shooters: Eliminating interface elements and integrating ammo and health meters into the game context (vision fading for health, ammo meters on the guns, etc). I mean, isn’t that kind of the point in a first person game, being able to see through the character’s eyes and all? A giant red bar along the bottom of the screen doesn’t exactly suck you into the whole experience. I also liked the Animus in the Assassin’s Creed series. It was kind of a plot gimmick, but works well for explaining away game elements.

Games in my opinion at least, have much more potential as a storytelling medium if they can ever get over their own tribulations (well, publishers). But you know what gaming really needs? I mean, REALLY needs?? Better writers. Good God.