DIY government surveillance in Watched Sweeper game

sweepersplashEver wonder what it would be like to be the NSA or another government surveillance agency?

In Watched Sweeper, a new HTML5 game about surveillance, players must observe a crowd and arrest people who don’t look like true Patriots.

As that old saying goes: “Patriots are the true. Heretics are the damned.”

Once you’ve given it your all to separate the Heretics from the Patriots, you’ll want to check out my novels WE, THE WATCHED and DIVIDED WE FALL (where the above quote appears). If you submit a high score, you’ll be treated to a discount on the price of the eBook version of WE, THE WATCHED.

Screenshot from Watched Sweeper
Screenshot from Watched Sweeper

You’ll need a recent browser capable of rendering HTML5 to play. I programmed Watched Sweeper in Clickteam Fusion 2.5 and used the HTML5 exporter.

Please leave any feedback on the game in the comments below.

Click here to play. Happy watching!

Note: Sorry, high scores are currently broken.

Dialogue Depth in Video Games

Story-driven video games can be as engaging as a novel or film. But unlike those other mediums, games require some level of interaction with the player. The point of a game isn’t to watch but to participate. But achieving the right balance can be difficult.

Giving the player a choice of what to say during characters’ conversation is one of the most basic ways to involve the player. But different games handle this in different ways. A game like Final Fantasy XIII pretty much bars players from having any role in the conversation, forcing them to sit back and watch. (Arguably, even FFXIII’s gameplay forces the player to sit back and watch, but that’s for another article.)

Other games occasionally pause the conversation to give players an option of what to say. In Fallout 3, players are presented with options that are fully written sentences. In other words, you say what you see. This is an approach that has been used in countless RPGs. It’s a proven winner, but not the most interesting.  The biggest downside is that it pretty much forces players to think before every little thing they say. I hope this doesn’t sound cynical, but people don’t do that in real life.

Fallout 3: What you see is what you say

To address that weakness, Mass Effect goes for a more emotion-based approach. Like Fallout, this sci-fi RPG presents players with a choice of responses. But the replies only give a vague idea of what the protagonist will say.  If you select “You’re crazy,” Shepard (the hero) won’t say those words exactly (he has a little more tact than that), but he certainly will get the message across.

Mass Effect provides the gist of what Shepard will say

L.A. Noire takes the concept a step further, and perhaps too far.  When you are interviewing a person of interest in connection to a crime, you are always presented with the same three choices after the POI gives an answer:  You can guess he is telling the truth, you can doubt the veracity of his response, or you can accuse him of lying. This simplified approach sounds good on paper, but in practice isn’t always intuitive. What do you do, for example, when the suspect seems to be telling you only half the truth?  Sometimes selecting truth encourages the POI to tell you more.  Other people need a little threatening, and “Doubt” is the right way to get him talking.

L.A. Noire: Truth, Doubt or Lie?

Maybe it’s just because I’m a reporter, but interviewing isn’t so black and white.  When I’m talking to a source, it’s not like my only three options are to agree with her answers, tell her that I don’t believe her or outright accuse her of lying. What about asking the question again but in a different, more roundabout way? Why can’t I “doubt” an answer without accusing the person of wasting my time (a quick way to end a conversation)? Perhaps if L.A. Noire gave a little better idea of what hero cop Cole Phelps was going to say next, I might choose the right response more often. Game critic Chris Kohler seems to agree in his review for Wired.com’s Game|Life column.

If you were to ask me, the Mass Effect method to conversation is the winner. It engages players in conversation and encourages gut-level responses so that players to make choices based on their own personalities rather than what they think the game wants them to say.

Agree or disagree? Let me know what you think in the comments section!

They Didn’t Want Their Comics Taken Away…

The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu

It happens every generation: the kids pick up a new piece of pop culture and frightened parents get riled up.

Video games are the most recent target of adult ire. After several attempts to make laws banning violent games, the Supreme Court announced this month that it will take up whether states may ban  the sale of explicit games to minors. The groups that back bans argue that violent games encourage youth delinquency, increase aggression, and yes, train future killers. The other side–gamers and civil-liberties wonks, mainly–say banning games violates freedom of speech. Besides, they contend, an industry-run parental ratings system gives parents control over the games their kids play.

Interestingly, this fight has played out before. When today’s angry parents were children, they had to defend their own controversial hobby: comic books.

I recently read a great book on the subject, The Ten-Cent Plague by David Hajdu.  The author chronicles the panic that ensued in churches, local communities and the Congress… and the parallels abound. Like games, comics were blamed for acts of violence when it turned out the bully owned a few illustrated stories about criminals. The comic book industry even tried protecting itself from government intervention by establishing a “comics code.”

It seems that history is repeating itself. One can only wonder what today’s gamers won’t want their kids doing.

Top Video Game of 2009

At the risk of being predictable, I thought late December seemed like a good time to list some of my favorite things of 2009. First up is my favorite video game of the year: Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Available for Xbox 360, PS3 & PC; $50
For Xbox 360, PS3 & PC; $50

Before you spring off your computer chair in outrage, please keep in mind that I am a mere mortal who can’t afford (and doesn’t have time) to play every single great game that comes out. Another disclaimer: I’m a long-time Batman fan.

Then again, maybe my fervor for all things Dark Knight improves my credibility. You have no idea how long I’ve waited to play an actually good Batman game. I’ve played a lot of them, and this is probably the best one since the SNES game based on the animated series. And even that wasn’t really a classic.

So what makes Arkham Asylum different? The production value, for one thing. The story has a great comic book feel, including a plethora of Gotham’s supporting characters and dastardly villains, all while keeping the dark, brooding mood of the recent Chris Nolan movies. In addition, developer Rocksteady tapped the voice cast from the classic ’90s cartoon, including Mark Hamill as the Joker and Kevin Conroy as Batman.  Add in some brooding music and a creepy atmosphere best described as BioShock Lite (in a good way), and you’ve got one heck of an engrossing game.

My biggest fear going into Arkham Asylum was the setting.  An entire game in a prison? I expected to be bored with my surroundings in an hour. However, Rocksteady proved me wrong, stretching the seemingly one-note setting to include monster vines and fear-toxin fantasies. I should also note that the Alcatraz-like prison is massive, rewarding exploration with Riddler trophies hidden throughout the island.

Of course, I was also worried about the gameplay itself.  Previous Batman games have failed mostly due to an overemphasis on hand-to-hand combat and clunky, button-mashing controls. But for Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady opted to go all Prince of Persia / Splinter Cell on us, providing Batman with an arsenal of moves and gadgets to take out criminals with stealth and style.  Oh, and by the way, they got the beat ’em up stuff right too, with an excellent combo system that really captured the smooth, no-nonsense fighting tactics of the caped crusader.

Really, my only complaint about Arkham is the camera system. It’s not terrible, and works most of the time, but it’s so closely zoomed in on Batman that the game world gets a little claustrophobic. I understand that, in most of the movies, Batman couldn’t turn his head without shifting his entire body, but come on! Here’s hoping they get it right in the just-announced sequel.

Even with its (minor) flaws, Arkham Asylum unleashed the fun more than any other video game I played this year. If you haven’t had a chance to visit Joker and his friends yet, I urge you to head up the river immediately.

Stay tuned for my top music picks of 2009.

Never-Ending Games Sound Good, Hard to Finish

When I’m thinking about buying a game, one of the things I usually pay attention to in reviews is how many hours it will probably take me to beat a game’s single-player adventure mode. My criteria used to be, “the longer the better,” but now I’m starting to reconsider.

Video games, of course,  have to last longer than movies. I mean, you’re paying $40 more for a game than a DVD, and most of the time you’re not going to play the single-player component of the game more than once.

But let’s take a game like Tales of Vesperia, a Japanese role-playing game for the Xbox 360, which I finally beat the other day. According to my save file, I clocked in 61+ hours playing the game. Sure, some might say that means the game takes 2-3 days, a week tops. But let’s be serious, anyone who can play 61 hours in less than a week doesn’t have a job, and actually might be undead, considering they don’t require sleep. For real humans with other things happening in their lives, 61 hours could mean 9 months to a year, assuming they don’t lose interest. You could make an entire baby in that amount of time!

Sure, a year of gameplay seems like a great value. But the problem with video games is they’re released all the f***ing time! About a month or two after buying Tales, I made the mistake of picking up Fallout 3. Not a mistake because Fallout 3 is a bad game. On the contrary, it’s probably one of the best titles this generation of consoles. But it is also really really long if you take the time to explore the world and do all the side quests. And they actually release EXPANSIONS for this game. If only I had the time! I finally beat Tales this week due to guilt inflicted from ordering Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Not more monsters!
Not more monsters!

So is the solution shorter games? Yes and no. As a writer, I would never tell a game developer to put a cap on their creativity. But there is something to say for smart editing. In many of the super-long games I’ve played, there have been sections of repetitive battling and/or boring  treasure hunts. These are the parts where the gamer starts to lose interest.  Why not chop the 25 hours of fat and keep the 35 hours of meat?

Personally, I like to be left wanting more. Not so much more that I feel ripped off. But when the credits roll, I want to feel hungry for the sequel, not glad it’s finally over.