Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Game Up Your Life

Many years ago I read a book by Jane McGonigal called Reality is Broken. While I remember not agreeing with many of her points (you can read my review of it here) I did find her main idea intriguing - the idea that everything not only can, but maybe should be turned into a game, to motivate people to do things they wouldn't normally do. Things that would not only benefit themselves by having fun (ideally) but also have an added benefit of helping someone or something else.

This is in fact something that has been explored further and even put to use in many different ways since. One that comes to mind is allowing the public to sort through vast amounts of pottery shards to find the ones that could hold interesting information in some ways. Rather than having some poor archaeology students spend countless of man hours on what would ordinarily be considered a tedious and menial task, you can turn the "pottery shard sorting" into a sort of mini-game and by making enough people interested you can not only get the job done quickly, but by people who are having a good time doing it.

The book in cuneiform.

That is the idea in a nutshell, and I love it. Like I said it has been used many times before and I think it holds great potential. I have also explored the idea before myself in a couple of blog posts. I guess you can see this blog post as a pre-cursor to this one. So yet again this idea had me thinking and it made me wonder if not maybe we could put it to use at a much smaller level. I mean much, much smaller.

How about using it as a way to motivate and even enthuse a child to the prospect of having to do something they would ordinarily not want to do? As the proud mother of a 6 year old I am always eager to find ideas that allow me to keep my child happy and me less nagging and annoyed. Some times when you just want and really need your child to co-operate you usually have two paths to take - the one of threats and the one of bribes. I am not a huge fan of either of these. What if there was a third path? One that made the child interested in the project at hand without you having to resort to future wrath or promise of goodies?

Well, in a way I guess this idea is a bit of both really - but packed and presented in a way that makes it clear that we're not talking about any real threats or bribes, but game-ones.

I'll give some examples from my own experiences:
Going from point A to point B (that'll take more than 5 minutes). I'm not even kidding, most of the time even though my kid can run around and scream endlessly if he wants to, when he doesn't want to he is suddenly struck with debilitating laziness and can barely walk. It can be beyond frustrating, especially if you have a time to keep (which is often the case). I've had my kid tell me he couldn't walk because his leg hurt so much, but if he got to take the longer way around it was fine. This kind of illogical reasoning is something that crops up all the time with kids, but it all boils down to one thing - this is boring and I don't want to do it.

Most of the time if I can allow my kid to get it his way (and it also suits my way enough) I will. But some times that is just not the case. Maybe you need to get to the train station and you just missed the bus? Your kid doesn't enjoy the prospect of having to walk (maybe exasperated by the fact they had been looking forward to a bus ride) and the idea of carrying him and the luggage the entire way is just not feasible. What to do?

The book in regular letters.

What about turning the walk to the train station in to a video game? If you've got time to prepare it's of course the best, but even a quick plan could work wonders. Quickly map out the path you're going to take in your head. Where could there be a "boss" for you to fight? Where is there a "pit" to jump or a "treasure" to find? Add "npcs" and "objects of interest" as it fits the path and a dash of invested story telling and you'll suddenly, possibly, have a really interested 6 year old.

I use the word "video game" but really it's just a game or any old adventure. To me personally it helps to think of it as a video game because video games are usually well structured in the way of "levels", "items" and "bosses". If Dungeons & Dragons is your type of reference that's just great.

Me and the 6 yo actually had to take a rather long walk the other day and while we could've taken the tram I decided I wanted and needed the fresh air. As we started walking it took about 3 minutes before my kid said he didn't want to walk any further. I told him he better get prepared because over at X place there was a boss waiting for him and he still had to find the SWORD to beat it with. He got a big smile on his face - "where is it?". I pointed to a row of stones - "it's behind one of those but beware, because the wrong ones have monsters behind them instead". He ran ahead to the stones and started to look. "Tough luck, there is a monster!" I said and he had a pretend battle with it. After a couple of other monsters he managed to find his "sword" which he proudly carried (invisible in his hand) all the way to the boss.

On this trip we also had to find a shield, kill that first boss, then find a scroll of turn-to-stone to get past the cave troll, then speak to the fairy to recharge the scroll, then find our wings to fly up a mountain... The entire time there wasn't a word about not having energy to walk, just eagerness to continue forward to the next thing.

Not the cave troll in the article.

Another example - cleaning/tidying. If you could grade kids on a scale of how easy it is to get them to at least do some tidying I think my 6 yo ends up somewhere around 2, 1 being impossible. It doesn't matter that he literally just threw every book in his bookshelf on the floor in the search for something, when I ask him to pick it up (even offering to help) the answer is always "I don't have the energy to do that!". Well duh. Like anyone does.

Suffice to say, many tactics have been used to try to motivate my kid to pick things up after him, or at least help out in doing so. Whenever he does show interest in helping out with cleaning it's often things where I don't really trust that things won't break like him doing the dishes or him swinging around a mop. I still try to encourage him when he does show interest, because at least it is something.

But what if cleaning could be turned into a game? I tried it. We drew up an avatar, I told him it could be anything (he chose a jellyfish) and I said there were different things he could purchase for this avatar i.e draw on to the picture. Things like spikes, sun glasses, a fish pal or a big shark. But these things cost points that he had to earn by doing different chores.

He was excited. "What can I do to earn points mom?". "Well you can start by picking up all these Legos, that's 10 points.". "How much is the fish friend?". "That's 50 points. The sunglasses are 10 points". "Ok, cool". He started picking up the Lego. I can't emphasize enough how much more nagging and time this would've have taken normally. Threats, which I am generally not a fan of anyway (but every parent resort to them eventually) just do not work on this kid, so that's never been a real option. Just asking him to do it out of the kindness of his heart and because it would make mom really happy... well let's just say he hasn't really grasped the benefits of that yet (I'll get back to this momentarily).


But with this system he not only tidied without any problems, he asked for more things to help out with. I soon struggled to keep him occupied - my fault really as I should've been ready with enough chores for him to do to be able to get every special item for his jelly fish. Funnily enough, even when he had enough points to buy things he decided he wanted to save them. Maybe for the next time we tidy.

So far so well, I can see this system with a bit of tinkering easily being adapted to a whole plethora of situations. I do have thoughts though and I don't think it's just a wonder wand of solving every issue regarding motivating my 6 yo.

For instance, as mentioned, shouldn't kids learn that tidying is its own reward? That listening to someone else and doing what they want can be a nice thing to do even if there isn't an immediate reward involved? Are immediate rewards really the right way to go about everything? Some things in life simply don't pay off until later on, and isn't that a really important lesson to learn as well?

Yes, I totally agree with all these points and they require some careful consideration. I often tell my kid that everything can't be fun right now. Some times, some things you do are not so fun right now so that you can have more fun later. Having a nice and tidy home or making your friends and family happy can be its own reward and a good one at that.

But I also subscribe to the Friends school of altruism, i.e that there isn't any. Everything we do, we do in some way or other for our own sake. If I give money to charity it is to make myself feel better about making other people feel better. If I clean my home it because I feel good about having a clean home. I don't think this is a bad thing. A deed can be "good" regardless of the underlying reasons behind it. I don't think a recipient of a needed organ for instance really cares of the reasons behind the donors wish to donate.

So where am I getting with this? That yeah, it's important to teach a kid about different ways things can be rewarding but I also think that it's important to find ways that something can be rewarding for that person (in this case my kid). When you're 6, it's good to hear someone ask you to be nice for its own sake but it's also good to just get to have fun doing something.

And maybe we do things for future reward because we haven't learned how to make it fun right now? I would feel good from doing excercise for instance, but that doesn't mean that the excercise in itself can't be fun too? I like when things are clean but that doesn't mean there is anything wrong in making the cleaning part fun as well?

The main drawback to this system would be that it requires either some planning or good on the spot thinking/improvisation. Also, as with anything else, different people enjoy different things. If your kid happens to be the kind that just listens and does their tidying then congratulations! What your kid needs really depends on what kind of person they are and there isn't just one way to do things. This isn't the way, this could be another way when you're sick of nagging or just having to do it yourself. I think it could also teach the lesson that things that might look tedious on the surface can be made fun if you try to.

I think the reason this appeals so much to me is because I am not easily motivated to do things I don't enjoy. The whole "just do it" or "discipline!" way of doing things has never worked for me. Fortunately it is offset by my optimistic personality and the fact that I see the possibility of fun in most things. But there are some things I just don't like doing. Exercising… cleaning… getting out of bed before 12 (before I had kids, now they're my motivation and I haven't slept past 9 for the last 6 years). I am not a goal hunter, I need to find the journey to my goal entertaining as well or I will struggle to get it done. I guess in that way I am still like a child, for better or worse.

As you've noticed it's an idea that really jives with me. We like to set up goals and motivate ourselves to get there, but maybe we should spend equal time trying to make the journey there fun?

Also, credit to a book that still has me thinking about it 9 years down the road.

Images from wired.com, skullstore.ca, fantasyflightgames.com, me.me.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Jade Empire (PC) - Review

The waning empire.
Definitely spoilers.

Have you ever come across a game that is almost offensively bad at living up to its potential? I'm guessing most of us who play games come across some every now and then that are more or less not to our liking, either because they don't strike any of our chords or because they're simply very uninspired.

I can't say that about Jade Empire though. It seems extremely inspired and could strike many of my chords but it never managed to bring any of its many, good, ideas to an interesting and fun fruition.

I had long been interested in checking out Jade Empire once I had first heard about it. A Bioware RPG? That no one really seems to talk about? A bit odd, isn't it? And it's about martial arts? Definitely sounds like it could be something I'd be having fun with.

Jade Empire was released in 2005 as an Xbox exclusive. That explains a bit about why it took me so long to take notice of it at first. In 2005 I had just started my 8 year adventure into World of Warcraft and was nowhere near an Xbox (I have still never played one). I don't think it was until 2007, when it was ported to PC or maybe even later than that, that it first caught my eye. As information about the game slowly trickled into my consciousness across several years my curiosity grew. It seemed really odd to me that the company behind games like Baldur's Gate, KoToR, Mass Effect and Dragon Age had also developed another (action) RPG that I at least seemed to be hearing very little about. Even more oddly, it seemed to have been originally well received and then fallen away into obscurity, at least when compared to the above-mentioned games.

KoToR, another game that frustrated me but for completely other reasons.

In it you play as a "Spirit Monk" and start out as the top disciple in a school for martial arts. So far so classic martial arts movie. I thought the game was off to a pretty decent start. The graphics looked typical for the time and functional enough without exactly being eye candy (I kind of have a nostalgic thing for those graphics though). 2005 was a year when game designers were able to start making character models detailed enough to not be laughable but still had pretty bland environments (just look at before mentioned WoW as another prime example).

Your master tells you of secrets he wants to finally divulge to you and you also get to try out some of the rather (wannabe-)intricate combat system that you'll be spending a truck load of time using throughout the game. In that first hour as you run around the school and try to make and break friendships the game seems quite promising. But it was also within that first hour I got the first glimpse into one of the bigger issues with the Jade Empire game design - the story telling and the pacing.

The overall story is nothing special nor worthy to write home to mommy about. You turn out to be, as mentioned, a special kind of warrior and you are quickly set on the path to save your martial arts master when the school is being attacked. As you travel through the world you meet new people that join your cause, for varying reasons, and also get involved in a bigger plot to save the kingdom from a seemingly evil emperor that has set the spirit realm in unbalance causing the dead to come back to haunt (and kill) the living. The story is fine, it's not bad and the characters you meet actually have the seeds of being quite interesting.

Might not look like fun, but I still wish I could spend more time in each area.

It's really unfortunate then that the pacing seems to have been set to "FTL". "Quickly" is definitely the key word here. Wherever you go or whomever you meet you barely get a chance to be there or talk to them until it is time to move on. When it first happened and I was unceremoniously thrown out of the martial arts school very early in the story I didn't think that it had to be a problem. But before long I noticed that this wasn't something that was limited to that first area. The second area you come to, a swamp filled with pirates and other scum people made it very clear that this was the style of the game and I started to get a bad feeling. In the swamp you get a quest to save a woman from pirates who have kidnapped her and are keeping her in a cave. One of the pirates is also linked to the martial arts school and your master, so seems to be a character that deserves a fair chunk of story time. Not so, the cave and the quest took some ten minutes to finish and that was basically the very swift end of that story line.

The game just continues at this break neck speed. Just like in Dragon Age and Mass Effect you're soon surrounded by an entourage of characters with which you can build relationships. Apparently. It was only by chance I managed to get into some sort of love story with one of the characters. Trying to build a relationship with them seems to not be encouraged, and whenever I try to strike up some conversation they shut me down after a few lines of dialogue by saying something with the essence of "enough talking and more action!".

Throughout the game you get the feeling that the designers have been extremely careful not to allow the player to grow bored of anything. But this is taken to the extreme where instead I am also not allowed to grow attached to anything. Areas come and go like I am looking through a Viewmaster. I am bombarded with new fighting styles a lot faster than I have time to try them out, develop them and have fun with them. The same goes for the characters that you meet. While they are all potentially interesting, from the young girl possessed by a guardian demon, to the crazy inventor or my childhood friend who can sense spirits, I am never given enough time nor opportunity to develop these relationships.

Speaking of the combat, it is another area in which the game unfortunately fails greatly. It almost saddens me to say it though because it really feels like a lot of love and thought has gone into the combat system, as there is, at least superficially, a lot to do and tinker with. Like I mentioned you get many different combat styles to fight in, and also magic and weapons. To use these you have both Chi (basically mana) and Focus (basically stamina) and depending on what you use to fight with you'll deplete one bar or the other. To add to this you can transform into various demons and ghosts and all of these different options have their own strengths and weaknesses depending on what enemy you are fighting. Each option can also have different areas strengthened with points you gain each time you level. For instance you can make a style or a demon hit harder or cost less chi/focus to use.

Enemies are varied, but not fun.

So there is a lot to do and take in and none of it is even particularly confusing. But why is it so gosh dang clunky to use? Your character moves like she is cosplaying a refrigerator and you get a lot more stressed about trying to wrestle your character around the fighting field than you ever are about the enemies. At normal difficulty the enemies aren't too hard, but the controls are so incredibly bad that you end up failing anyway because you can't target the right way, get in proper position to hit your target or avoid damage smoothly enough. It is extremely frustrating and feels through and through unfair whenever you fail a fight. It only took me a few hours into the game before I put the difficulty down to easy (something you at least thankfully can do) because I just couldn't take the rage-inducing struggle of the combat system any longer.

At the easy difficulty the game is unfortunately extremely easy. At normal difficulty it is probably quite doable but every fight becomes about a fun a chore as doing the dishes and just kills any desire to play the game. On easy I could at least breeze through the game quick enough to want to finish it despite its many flaws.

The soundtrack is one area where this game gets it right though. Heavily influenced with eastern sounds for obvious reasons, most (but definitely not all) of the tracks still manage to stay away from cliché territory and keep things interesting and fresh. But overall I find the tunes strong enough to hold for listening to even outside the game and I always consider that a mark of good quality. The sound effects too do their job well and there is a lot of different moaning, groaning and punching noises to accompany you in the many fights.

The transformations are fun and varied, but equally clunky to use.

Somewhere in the middle of the game you get to the Imperial City and I don't know why but suddenly the game really made me think of the first The Witcher game and how much better that game is than this one. Overall the two games feel similar in style and gameplay but The Witcher ends up being way more fun. While The Witcher is two years younger, it was pretty much agreed upon at the time that it was a bit outdated graphically and gameplay wise for its time. And still The Witcher gets everything right that Jade Empire doesn't. You get to spend more time in each area and with each story-character, allowing you to build relationships with them that make you care about what you do and what happens. The big city you end up spending most of your time in (Vizima) and the outskirts around it where you do a lot of the quests feel a lot more lived in and real and immersive. Quests and characters link together, you revisit them and they allow you to be a part of them. In Jade Empire it always stays at feeling like a stage that you will soon leave and even sooner forget everything about.

Yet it really seems like so much love was at least meant to go into this game. It's like they had all the time in the world to develop the ideas for the game and no time or money to actually create the game. Because, yet again, there is so much about this game that could've been truly great! You get to infiltrate an assassins guild and your master turns out to be the main bad guy in a plot twist that I stopped caring about before I even knew it was going to happen. You end up dying and have to fight your way out of the spirit realm. It could've been cool! It could've been fun! What happened?

Was it lack of time? Was it bad prioritizing? Like I mentioned before this game seems to have been quite well received when it was first launched, most of the complaints seem to have been regarding its short length (it took me 15 hours to complete playing about two thirds on easy, which to me seems like perfectly fine game length. But yeah, if you're comparing to Baldur's Gate that may seem short). Since I didn't play it at the time and haven't checked any revisited reviews of it I am unsure if it has just aged badly or really didn't click with me.

Jade Empire is just an empty shell of a lot of really cool ideas. It feels like such a waste both of your time but especially of all the things that actually could've turned out really well and made a good game. Some of these ideas Bioware did in fact take, either intentionally or not, and develop in later games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. While I am not a huge fan of either of those games either I would definitely recommend you play one of those instead of this one.

Images from mobygames.com, gamerselixir.com, amazon.co.uk, jadeempire.fandom.com, lparchive.org.