Over the past few days I've played, oh, 16 hours of Trine 2 with the forever awesome Jared von Hindman. We both fell in love with the game's art and story (at least the original story line that constitutes the first half of the game or so, but more on that later) and it's an awesome co-op game, something that's been difficult for us to find. Before I get much further, here's a trailer of Trine 2:
At it's core, it's a side-scrolling game that combines action, puzzles, and platforming to tell a story. It's one of the best co-op games I've come across in a long time and we had a ton of fun working out the puzzles while talking to each other on Skype. I think it could be a great game for anyone close who has to spend time apart including couples.
Great Mix of Characters
You get to play one of three heroes:
- Amadeus the Wizard - An older, reluctant hero who is married with kids. He doesn't have any direct combat abilities but his core abilities include levitating objects (which expands to monsters) and making boxes (which later expands to creating planks and monster cages).
- Pontius the Knight - A rather large fellow who loves to smash things, with his sword or hammer. Besides bashing things, he has a shield that he can use to glide or redirect water or fireballs.
- Zoya the Thief - Or as she likes to refer to herself, an entrepreneur. She has a bow and as she gains in levels, different types of arrows unlock such as anti-gravity, fire, and ice. She also has a super awesome grappling hook that lets her get up and over many of the challenges.
Each of these characters have unique talents, that when combined together and often with the environment, let you do some pretty awesome stuff. For instance, we found that Amadeus can't levitate a block while one of the other characters is standing on it. However, if Zoya creates an anti-gravity area with one of her arrows, he can place a block there. She can then jump on it and while she's in the air, he can push it upward. When she lands on it again, she can jump off and also gains the benefit from the upward momentum. Additionally, wooden blocks found in the environment aren't restricted in this manner when she's hanging from them with her grappling hook, so Amadeus can levitate her across obstacles in that case.
Much of the game is just beautiful. Some of it is creepy beautiful for sure, but a lot of work went into making it all work and it shows. The first half of the game plays through the adventure the Trine, an ancient artifact, summoned the characters for. I don't want to spoil the story, so that's all I'll say, but it has a wondrous, fairy tale vibe and there's a real story there. Throughout the adventure there's a bunch of notes, diary entries, paintings, poems, and the like to collect. Many of these reveal more about the land and the story. There are also lots of puzzles. Some of them are pipe puzzles involving redirecting air, fire, or water to either redirect the flow to make it possible to get through or to help magic plants grow and reveal new areas. Some areas are underground and others are even underwater.
This game has awesome amounts of co-op. A fair number of the puzzles involved working together to solve them, using our special abilities to create some really cool stuff. While it wasn't impossible for us to get in each other's way at times, it also didn't happen all the time. We had so much fun with this game, we're going through again trying to find all the areas we missed and trying to unlock more of the achievements.
More Than One Way to Do It
Also, I have to confess I'm not the world's best platformer (that is, I'm not great at video games where the difficulty is in precision jumping). This games helps with this in a few ways:
- There's often multiple ways around a problem. If you're great at platforming, then jump your way around. Not so great? Find a way to build what you need.
- Working together often is better than working alone.
- If one person gets to the next checkpoint, you'll be there if you die, so why not try. If the other person gets too far ahead, you'll be whisked there too.
One thing to note, we played the complete story. We weren't as thrilled with the second half. It felt much more like a generic video game and, at least on my end as the wizard, I felt constantly frustrated because I didn't have any combat powers. It also felt like there was a sudden difficulty shift and the art wasn't quite what we expected given the rest of the game. Of course, your mileage may vary.
So there you go. I highly recommend the game if you can get it. We lucked out and got it as part of the Steam Summer Sale. It's available for PC, Mac, Linux, XBox, PS 3, and Wii. That page also has a link for a free Mac demo and there is supposed to be one on Steam as well.
There's been a lot of talk about anti-harassment policies at conventions lately. This isn't a scientific survey by any means but I'd love to gather your thoughts through it as well. All answers are anonymous and in about a week, I'll publish the responses thus far.
Indie+ recently ran a day of events that focused on taboos in gaming. One of the events was a live play of Steal Away Jordan: Stories from America’s Peculiar Institution by Julia B. Ellingboe. In this game, players play the roles of slaves in the US during the 1800s. Since I haven't read the actual game yet, this will be about my reactions to watching the game play. Hopefully the game itself will be available soon so I can read the text.
Humanizing the Dehumanized
I don't know how the evils of slavery was presented to any of you growing up, but I remember that my school textbooks treated enslaved human beings as property or things even as we were taught how evil this was. They were full of pictures of white humans looking into the mouths of black humans to see how healthy they were with this act compared to the inspection one would give a horse. We saw pictures of them bound and chained standing on the auction block, sold off as individuals. Stories and images of whippings, beatings, and the scars of the same showed up over and over again. Then came the pictures of those who fought slavery, generally the white and upper class people of America who righted this wrong.
While I think those are all important things to learn, notice we haven't learned much, if anything, about how the enslaved people lived. We rarely heard their voices. I couldn't tell you what games they played as children. How did their parents comfort them during a thunderstorm? After a hurricane?
In this game, we started with people. Each player described their character. How old he/she was. Whether or not they had attempted to run away before and, if so, what scars they had on their body that told that story. Were they literate? Did they have skills? Why were they there? Where were they born? What was their name? In the process, they created people and the possibilities of rich, detailed stories should not be glossed over.
After the creation of the people comes the assignment of worth and the slave name from the game master. If you watch, there's a interesting bit where one of the players gives a current name to his character. Julia steps in and says he doesn't get to choose that. It's the first time, in my opinion, that we start to see how these characters have two selves, their human side and then the part where they are another person's property. Whereas the earlier section reinforced the former, this drives home the latter. The game master decides what the details about your character are worth and assigns the players their dice based on it. Young adult typically is worth more than older adults, although being skilled mitigates that. Previous escape attempts as well as disobeying result in dice being taken away.
Community as a Resource
After the worth of each player character is assigned, Julia gives the worth of the NPCs, including the slave owner, Robert Ford. Robert has a lot of dice and Julia even suggests that the characters might want to combine forces if they want to have a conflict with him.
I discuss issues of social justice a lot. One of the concepts I find hardest to talk about is why 1) people don't just rebel and 2) why some of the people in the oppressed group do things that reinforce the oppressive system. Between Julia's descriptions and the play in the game, I hope people get a better idea.
Because slavery is often taught as a means to an end, in this case understanding why relations in the US broke down to the point where we fought a destructive and costly Civil War, we often don't think of slaves as three-dimensional human beings. We don't think of them having a culture. We emphasize the property element to the point we don't understand that they might often travel within a limited sphere and have all sorts of relationships with all sorts of people. We also might not consider that, like all human beings, they have basic needs and wants and that one of the big differences between free and slave comes down to how you get those things. I'm going to simplify things for a moment. For me, as a free person in the US, my ability to meet my needs is largely self-driven. If I want more, I should either work more or find a job that pays me more money. I have the freedom of choice to attempt to do that (whether or not I'm successful is another matter).
If you are owned by another person, by and large your ability to meet those needs and desires is tied to the person who owns you. If he or she does well, there's a good chance you will benefit from that. If you sabotage that person, you may be harming yourself as well. The way I tend to view it is their status sets your base. Since material goods may be harder to come by and keep, as an enslaved person, your relationships with others are important whether they be the comfort of friends and family or the access to information and resources that others might provide. So, if you were to get caught attempting to escape or planning a slave revolt, you could easily lose most if not all of your resources through the punishment and the possible sale to someone else.
Re-examining the Hero Story
As I mentioned earlier, in my experience, the slave narrative is often not a tale of the slaves at all but of this epic battle between whites over the topic of the slaves. We champion Abraham Lincoln, knowing all sorts of details about his life, but rarely do people like Frederick Douglass get the same treatment. We have lists of those who died in the Civil War, but I have yet to see a book that lists the name of those who died attempting to escape slavery.
Instead of playing a white abolitionist or a slave owner who sees the light and frees his or her slaves, the players played slaves. They were attempting to free themselves, using their own wits. When we compare this to other games that attempt to explore these issues, such as say, Bioshock Infinite, this change of perspective is huge.
There's a bunch more that I could go into here, but I'd prefer to wait until I can read the game itself. While my knowledge of the specific subject matter the game covers may be limited, I saw a lot come out during the game play that made me excited, especially as someone who grew up in a lower class household and had to later deal with how people from the upper classes viewed people like me and our lives and choices. While the game is not currently available, I asked Julia about it and she hopes to have a PDF version available again soon. Also, I asked Indie+ if they would consider releasing it in audio only form for those who dig podcasts. It sounds like there's a possibility of that happening next week.
If you are interested in learning more, the Library of Congress has a collection of narratives from former slaves on their website.
(Also, notice how much of the art presented focuses on white people and their roles in the anti-slavery movement, often presenting them as the heroes. Understanding how common that presentation is is important to understanding some of the race issues that continue in the US.)
In school, most discussions of the Great Depression talked about the Dust Bowl. I knew things were bad during that time period, but I didn't quite understand how bad it was until I watched Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl. The way it was always described to me focused on the drought and the lack of food, both horrible on their own for sure, but not necessarily awe-inspiring.
The Dust Bowl was the result of a decade-long drought combined with farming practices not only ill-suited to the area but destructive. The two amplified each other until we had an ecological disaster that is almost unfathomable. Here are some of the things that happened:
- Gathered by the winds, dust storms covered hundreds of miles and would sweep through much of the US in a single day. In some areas, they would cause dust drifts that reached the rooftops and deposit inches if not feet of dirt in a new location.
- These storms could destroy most if not all of a crop across several states during one storm.
- The dust clouds could black out the sun. The static electricity they caused would make it impossible to use the phone.
- The clouds would drift into cities like Chicago and New York, thousands of miles away from where the dust originated, causing damage and blocking out the sun.
- The dust was small enough to get into the lungs. Man and beast alike could suffocate if caught out in the storm without protection. For some it lead to dust pneumonia.
- The drought caused plagues of grasshoppers and rabbits. The rabbits in particular would get so bad at times that towns would hold special events to kill them, asking townspeople to bring the whole family for the chore.
If you are looking for a cataclysmic event for your game, this should qualify. Depending on what type of story you are going for, it could be based on the same reasons as the real world dust bowl, human ingenuity gone awry in the struggle between man and nature. However, I could see other things working as well. Nature spirits upset at the defilement of a sacred location create massive winds. Fire elementals summoned by a an evil wizard (or a spell gone awry) parch the land and burn away the top layer of soil and sod.
For me, I see ecological disasters as a good way to provide tensions in a game without relying on stereotypes or things like racism, sexism, etc. I feel story-wise it also provides both an impetus for groups to have tensions against each other as they compete for limited resources as well as providing a way for players to solve those tensions without genocide if they choose to do so. Does it work for everyone? No, but it's what I happen to like.
Anyway, I definitely suggest checking out the documentary and learning more about this chapter of US history. If you have US Netflix, it's available for instant play.
I like adding elements of environmentalism to my games. This came out in my article for Melora and in my Acadia game where one of the tensions I explicitly set up was between the ship builders and their need for a certain type of timber and the gnomes and other forest folk who made their homes in those trees. I recently heard about the underground forests in places like Niger and the work being done to make them rise again in an attempt to combat desertification.
Basically, in some deserts, there are stumps or seedlings of trees that, with care and cultivation, could turn into trees. If this is done, they not only provide their own goods, in the form of shade, firewood, etc, they also make the land around them more productive. We didn't know this because for years we destroyed them, allowed cattle to feed on them, and didn't prune them. Some farmers purposefully destroyed them believing that they would decrease yield. According to the article, in some areas crop yields increased 2 to 3 times after practicing these techniques.
Introducing in Game
There's a few ways one could introduce this in game.
- Have local groups fight over land where these procedures aren't being used. Allow nature-type checks to be used to find out a non-violent solution to the conflict.
- If the PCs leave the well-travelled roads, have one of the communities they meet practice this type of cultivation. If you are making a morally grey world, it easily could be one of the "monster" groups, similar to some groups of Horde in World of Warcraft. However be careful to not make this into a typical "savages" narrative that we find all too often in fantasy.
- Make finding such a solution the life's goal of an NPC and have him or her ask one or more PCs to aid in the development of these techniques.
Providing Information and Implementing
What information to provide and how to provide it depends on what type of game you are running. For instance, if the game is primarily about dungeon delving with very little social interaction, downtime, or character backstory, providing detailed information to your players about what needs to happen to produce one of these green zones isn't necessary and may be overkill. Providing a journal or tome that details this information that they can then redeem in town for rewards should work and, if the campaign goes on for some time in the game world, you can describe the changes that are occurring when the enter town after a trek.
If the characters are interested in being more directly involved, I'd suggest doing some research on the techniques and the outcomes. Then decide if the PCs should research and experiment themselves on what techniques work best or if they are going to be more involved in the implementation stage. It all depends on what you and your players find interesting. This would be a great use for in-game-world downtime and I'd suggest going for simplicity and success over simulation.
Also, remember that the challenges presented to the PCs don't have to be limited to finding information or providing physical labor. If you listen to Tony Rinado's story, you'll notice that he had to convince a lot of people, at many different levels of society, that this worked and was a good idea.
Describing The Changes
In the video, Tony Rinaudo discusses how the environment and the local culture changed due to these techniques. I'd suggest figuring out a time line for how this could change the local game world and play it out as either NPCs or PCs employ these techniques. Change the description as they venture outside of town. Have the NPCs thank the PCs for making it easier to get firewood or for the increased prosperity for town. Decrease the number of conflicts based on competition for resources. Add new people to the town, people who were enticed to come there based on the developments.
What ideas do you have? Feel free to leave them in the comments below.
Image: "Apple Valley" © 2012 Gwyneth Ravenscraft, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/