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Archive for February, 2010

Gameplay is Not Always King

If someone came up to you and earnestly told you that the acting in a movie didn’t matter you’d probably laugh in their face. After all it’s not the cinematographers and editors who get payed the big bucks in Hollywood it’s the stars. Movies are made or broken by the ability of actors to bring us into the drama. And yet:

Progressive opinion in the silent era tended to deny that film was a performing art, since that would make it a form of theatre. No, film had unique capacities. Cinema was essentially moving pictures.

But What Kind of Art?

It’s a silly position to take but there is some logic to it. If one wanted to watch quality acting then surely you’d go to the theatre, especially in the silent era when all the great performers treaded the boards instead of gracing the silver screen. I’ve mentioned it before but Man With The Movie Camera is what you get when this philosophy is taken to it’s logical conclusion. And frankly it sucks, sure there’s lots to admire but I don’t think I could believe anyone who told me they’d rather watch that than a bunch of Charlie Chaplin shorts. So the theory makes sense but it doesn’t really work, what do you expect from a group of people who made communist propaganda for the Soviet Union? This brings me to my point

The problem goes that if you have an interesting story, compelling characters, plot twists and allegory, that’s all fine and good.  But what you have are the ingredients for a movie or a book, not necessarily a game.

Gameplay is King Story a Distant Second

Without a doubt this is the prevailing wisdom and it’s wrong. I’ve heard this so many times sometimes I feel like I’m being brainwashed. Thankful I have two games that should de-program anyone.

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I just got destroyed at Bloodbowl. It was an utter catastrophe of a game. By halftime I was down 2 – 0, three of my strongest players where injured, two of my line men had been sent off for penalties and my star thrower was unconscious. As the second half began I probably should have thrown in the towel then and there but I didn’t because the game was only just heating up.

In case you don’t know, Bloodbowl began life as a boardgame produced by Games Workshop. It’s a turn based American Football game set in a fantasy universe. The one defining feature of the game is that almost everything is random and even the simplest in-game action can end in failure. You want to pass the ball? You roll for that. You want to perform a block? Roll for that too. Even picking the ball off the ground requires you to roll. If you fail then not only does the action fail but it’s also the next player’s turn. Which can often mean they’re in prime position to exploit your failure to the maximum.

Failure is pretty much inevitable. No matter how you play the odds something will go wrong and if you’re really unlucky you can end up with matches like the one I described above. But the point of the game isn’t watching your plan go off without a hitch it’s the mad scramble when everything goes pear shaped. Almost every turn involves constantly adapting and thinking. When I started the second half I knew I was in for a hell of a ride. I must have thought up dozens of different plans, some of them even almost worked. Of course they didn’t, the game ended 3-0 and I was just happy that I managed to prevent it from being a total blow out.

Maybe it’s just me. I’m willing to admit I might be a little masochistic and I do tend to find peril more exciting than success. But for every game of Bloodbowl that has totally fallen apart there have been more that I’ve won and those victories were bought with slapped together plans emerging from the sublime wreckage of failure.

Clint Hocking might call this improvisational play. If it weren’t too depressing a thought I might even think of it as a life lesson.

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