Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Adapting a videogame to the tabletop

Unlike Blizzard games, which have novels written bout their universe, the background of Command & Conquer is hinted at. The games' manuals have some detail, but more needs to be created in order to have a background fleshed out enough to really campaign in. This is nice, because it gives me some flexibility to fill in gaps how I see fit.

In recreating the C&C universe for the tabletop, I wanted to stay true to the feel of the games while adding my own twist. I did NOT want to slavishly recreate the games in metal. For example, in C&C1 (Tiberian Dawn, or just "Dawn" from here on out) GDI uses Grenadiers, infantry units who carry around a satchel of hand grenades and throw them as a primary weapon. It works in game, but it's ridiculous as a real-world concept. A dedicated grenadier, that I can see, but he would be armed with a semi-auto launcher. So I'll discard some ideas completely, modify others, and take some directly from the source material.

Another consideration is finding miniatures to represent the forces in play. For the First Tiberian War, this is not incredibly difficult, as most units are copied from real-world weaponry. However, some things (such as a man carrying a satchel throwing hand grenades, or the Disk Throwers from Tiberian Sun) will be more difficult. In this case, I want to find a model that is conceptually close to the aesthetic and function of the in game unit.

Finally, my main concern will be infantry and vehicles directly supporting infantry, because I play mostly skirmish games.

Command & Conquer in 15mm

Yellow is the color of this apocalypse

Command & Conquer was one of my favorite game series when I was growing up. It was fun, stylish, and had this weird sense of morbid humor that really made it stand out from bland fantasy or science fiction settings of its peers. The series had sci-fi trappings, but they were grounded in the real world. The games had stories and characters, but the real story was about our planet evolving, leaving humanity behind to try and come to grips with the fact that we don't belong in our own world anymore.

It's not a happy time.

Alas, after Westwood's takeover by EA, the series has lost most of its appeal for me. Red Alert 2 was a great game (and to be honest, I think it's the best game of the series, even if it's not my favorite), and Generals and Zero Hour were also fine games if not really belonging to the Command & Conquer series, but Tiberium Wars took one of the greatest apocalyptic settings in PC gaming and ran it into the ground, while Red Alert 3 careened off into super zany territory without keeping that connection to our world that gave the other games in the series their bite. Tiberian Twilight doesn't even deserve more than a sentence dismissing it as a complete failure.

While the series' mechanics are brilliant, what really inspired me was the story that they told. I'm not referring to the actual plots. Those were pretty generic, if well told through in game events and cutscenes that took themselves just seriously enough. No, Command & Conquer's real story is the transformation of Earth into a hostile environment via Tiberium, and how people with different philosophies come into conflict with over this fact.

You have GDI, futile trying to maintain the status quo in the face of environmental catastrophe. Then there's Nod, who draw from the disenfranchised segments of the world and seek to embrace the changes Tiberium brings, convinced it is the next stage of humanity's existence. Then there are the Forgotten, mutants who are imbued with super-human abilities by the alien substance consuming their bodies from within. Finally, there are the civilians, people just trying to get by in a world that becomes more and more hostile every day.

There's a lot of great stories to be told from this setting.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ludonarrative Cohesion

So last post I laid out some examples of ludonarrative dissonance, and how it is 1) Unneccessary and 2) detrimental to the overall quality of the game.

I'd like to follow that up with some examples of ludonarrative cohesion - where the story told by the game is conveyed not just through talky bits and cinematics, but is inherent in the game's mechanics.

Our first example will be Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising. Hostile Waters is a real time strategy game similar to the venerable Carrier Command. The player controls a single massive warship (the Antaeus 00) and uses it to build smaller tanks, helicopters, and hovecrafts in order to destroy enemies and accomplish various objectives. Each vehicle can be built on its own, without any artificial intelligence, or can be implanted with a Soulchip containing the abilities and personality of one of Antaeus' dead crew.

Many RTS games start the player off with the basic unit types and gradually introduce more and more complex units and mechanics. Hostile Waters ties this progression into the narrative - in the beginning of the game, our vessel is raised from the bottom of the ocean and is almost completely disabled. The first series of missions involve getting Antaeus to a drydock so that full repairs can be performed - along the way, certain systems are restored, unlocking the user interface one piece at a time.

This applies to most of the vehicle and weapon upgrades, as well. You start with only the most basic of vehicles, but by recovering wreckage and stealing prototypes you can acquire schematics for your own use.

Even the very premise of the game is tightly woven into its story. How can Antaeus build complex machines of war in seconds? Nanomachines (and this is not quite the cheap handwaving it appears to be at first. Nanomachines are integral to the setting, and the impact of devices that can manufacture any material from raw components on society is closely examined. A large part of the game's message focuses on how the very same technologies that brought about Utopia are also the means to end existence.) How does each of these newly constructed machines operate? Modular soulchips. Why can't I simply create an entire airforce of copies of the best pilot? Because the copies would all instantly turn on the "pretenders."

Now these are not amazing or complex explanations. But each mechanic is addressed by the narrative and given a reason for why it is the way it is. Sure, those reasons may be flimsy at times, but they're consistent and at no time is the justification that "it's just a game" ever presented.

In much the same way that "it's just a movie" is a pretty poor excuse for things like plot holes in cinema (excepting, of course, those movies that revel in their 'movieness' - like any truly great summer action blockbuster) - "it's just a game" should rarely be accepted as the justification for "mechanic holes" in a truly "immersive" title. It's straight up lazy. It's why the fact that Saren patiently waits for you to arrive at each plot point planet before he begins his evil plan there is so unsatisfying - it peels away all that shiny veneer of authenticity to reveal the cogs whirring and clicking beneath. You can't lose, because it's a game silly! Your victory can only be postponed.

Going back to Hostile Waters, the ludonarrative cohesion even starts to make up for some of the game's rougher parts. For example, your AI companions are notoriously suicidal for the most part. Ransom (the hotshot pilot) in particular loves to assault antiaircraft emplacements head on. ALL. THE. DAMN. TIME. Such behavior is frustrating at first, and in another game would be dismissed as shoddy design.

But Hostile Waters has an advantage - its narrative. When they player is screaming in frustration at their teammates, crying out "What's wrong with you? Do you have a deathwish!?!" they're answering their own question.

You see, the Soulcatcher process isn't perfect science. The trauma of dying and being reborn over and over again has a destabilizing effect on the psyche. Hell, half the crew were bona fide nutcases before they died. Ransom even gets a whole cutscene covering his death (charging at a AAA emplacement) and his thoughts on how it was the dream of every combat aviator to die in the heat of battle.

So yes, your teammates all have a deathwish. Some, like the professional Borden, do their best to keep their composure and perform their duty. Others, like Ransom, just don't give a shit if they get blown to pieces. But all of them only find solace in the chaos and adrenaline rush of battle, and all of them want nothing more than to be allowed to rest in piece.

As far as their concerned if they win - then the Antaeus will be decommissioned and they will never be ressurected again. If they die - they'll just be brought back to life. If the mission fails and the world ends - well then they'll never be resurrected again, so it's the same outcome for them wether the player succeeds or fails. The only thing motivating them to fight at all is the fact that they are all obsessed with putting their deadly skills to use.

Now think about it - if you were in that situation, with nothing to live for (and not really living at all), wouldn't you be a little reckless?

Now I doubt that the AI limitations were intentionally programmed by the dev team, but were rather a result of limited time and resources. But the shortcomings are addressed within the game's fiction, and it's a much stronger experience for it.

After all, if you were reading a book about the story of the Antaeus, the fact that the commander could not count on his crew to think of self-preservation would be an interesting wrinkle in the plot, something that made the story memorable and unique. Reading about the commander's frustrations would be marvelously entertaining.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ludonarrative dissonance

So one thing that I'm always harping on is "message through mechanics," or something that I was calling "coherence" - how well a game's mechanics expressed its narrative intent. I recently heard a term that expressed that in a much more eloquent way so I'm going to use that from now on.

Ludonarrative dissonance - "ludo" bit here being from the latin "ludus" - to game - is when a game's expressed narrative clashed with its mechanics. This is something which seems to bug people the more seriously they take videogames - most "casual" players looking for a pastime seem to look right past this, as long as the game is fun.

One of the reasons that I was so deeply disappointed in Bioshock (which otherwise seemed to get a near perfect reception) was that it was so... dishonest in what it was about.

Here you had a narrative about a man who is forced to do terrible things to little girls in order to survive in a fantastic underwater setting by performing genetic manipulation on himself - using the same procedures which have driven the current inhabitants of the underwater city of Rapture crazy.

Yet the game constantly undermined its own setting - you had tons of ammo, plenty of health, and the "genetic manipulation" that you underwent was easily undone - you could simply swap out powers any time you wished. In fact, it's more than possible to go through the entire game using nothing more than the wrench, except for a few bits where you are forced to use certain powers to pass a scripted section. And no matter how many powers you gain, how much you shoot yourself up with gene-altering goo vials, you never suffer any ill effects. There were free respawn points every thirty feet, for god's sake - how can you possibly jusify killing a little girl for power when there was no way to possibly lose?

You can't, which is why the Little Sister moral dilemma in that game was nothing but a cheap trick, a halfhearted attempt to be more than just another shooter. It's philosophical trappings were nothing more than a thin veneer to give it the appearance of culture and sophistication.

It worked, too - it was hailed as "Shooter 2.0," despite being a base piece of wish-fulfillment that pandered to the lowest common denominator.

Don't get me wrong - it was a fun game. Well built, polished, and a good time. But it was a game about shooting things in the face, nothing more, and no plot twist could really change that.

The game fails in this respect especially hard when compared to its predecessor, System Shock 2. Both games are set in an isolated environment gone to hell, where the player is the lone remaining person who hasn't been turned into a raving monster of some kind. Both involve fighting the former inhabitants of the location and collected a substance that allows you to purchase upgrades.

But where Bioshock's upgrades were mostly for entertainment value, SS2's were necessary to have any hope of completing the game. You needed to do maximum damage with every shot, because ammo was scarce, and enemies plentiful. You had to spend points on skills like "repair" and "maintenance" because otherwise your weapons would fall apart on you.

Tangent - Most people regard the weapon degradation in SS2 as a poor design choice. I disagree. While it's frustrating to have your weapons fall apart on you after shooting through barely more than two magazines (especially when the in game description talks about how trusty and reliable the assault rifle is) - it adds a unique source of tension not present in most FPS games - you can't trust your weapons. No matter how many rounds I put through my submachinegun in Half-Life, it will always go bang every time I pull the trigger. It's something gamers take for granted now. Taking that away in SS2 was alien, scary - and fucking brilliant.

Most importantly, the choices you made were permanent. It was possible to work yourself into a tight situation by buying pointless upgrades - but you could overcome the setback and make it work, even if it was a hell of a lot harder.

Bioshock's upgrades basically consisted of more entertaining ways of killing things that never really were a threat to you in the first place - everything in the game can be killed with the wrench + shock combo (the first weapon and power you pick up, respectively). Going through the game with Beeswarm as opposed to Ignite isn't really all that different - and you can even switch the powers out if you get bored. It's a choice, yes - but not a decision. The player never has to commit. And while that makes the game open and accessible, it utterly kills the "dark survival" narrative.

Another example of a AAA game bolting an inappropriate narrative onto a game is TES IV: Oblivion.

Oblivion was an open-world game, one that I didn't particularly enjoy for a number of reasons. Foremost among these, though, was that the game kicks off with a "save the world" narrative, and then just lets the player wander around.

Now the Elder Scrolls series has long had a tradition of allowing the player to not follow the main storyline - it's one of the things it's famous for. But earlier incarnations suffered a lot less from ludonarrative dissonance. The previous game, Morrowind, started the player off as a recently released prisoner with instructions to see some fellow named Caius Cosades. If the player followed that quest line, they would ever so slowly uncover the main plotline. But if they ignored it and went about doing their own thing, it was quite possible that they would never hear about the Big Bad at all.

Oblivion, on the other hand, is aggressive about its "epic story." Putting aside the fact that it's pretty banal and generic - "Hell is invading!" has been old since DOOM - the game starts off by telling the player that if they don't "seal shut the gates of Oblivion" then the world is doomed.

Of course this is utterly false. If the player never goes through the main quest, absolutely nothing happens. Oblivion gates pop open here and there, but that's about it. Kvatch will be stuck in an endless battle till the end of time if the player doesn't personally arrive to advance the plot.

Another gross offender is Mass Effect. My first playthrough of that game was four hours. I saw none of the myriad sidequests that people raved about. I thought it was dull, repetitive, and a bit stupid.


Because when the characters in the game told me that time was of the essence, that Saren had to be stopped now - I believed them. I had the audacity to invest in a game's world enough to take the imminent threat of annihilation seriously. I rushed to each of the plot-critical planets and did their missions, ignoring requests for aid from almost everyone else, not because I was trying to be a "renegade," but because I was an elite operative leading a team with a single task - stop Saren. Doing sidequests in this context wasn't just filler - it was dereliction of duty!

What really broke my belief in the game's world was when my CO called me to take care of a rogue AI that "only I could stop." So I sighed, hopped in the ship and flew to... the moon.

The MOON. Next to the EARTH. The seat of Humanity's power.

I flew halfway across the damn galaxy, putting my super-secret-special mission on hold because NOBODY on the planet EARTH could take time off to go fight through three identical box rooms killing automated turrets.

This is kinda how I felt

Of course, the game doesn't care if you dick around. You always arrive just in time at each location. And if you do go around performing sidequests, you get to enjoy alot of pretty decent writing and some fun (if mostly repetitive) diversions from the main plot. I did that my second playthrough, and I had a good time.
Bt damn it, thinking "It's just a game, it won't punish the player for going and exploring all those sidequests they spent time and money on. I can ignore the warnings of impending doom" is just such an ugly metagaming thing to do. Why should I be forced to break my sense of immersion because the writers couldn't bring themselves to create a plot that actually made it plausible that I should be jetting around taking on random quests?

Clearly, Mass Effect was wildly successful. And it's fun, for what it is. It's slick, polished, and a terrible example of a good videogame.

To me, the games which have had the most impact, left the most profound impressions, and really made me excited about the medium are those with ludonarrative cohesion. When the game tells a story not just with words and cutscenes, but with action and mechanics. When the player can learn about a fictional culture by fighting it and observing how it behaves in battle. When a game fuses interaction and story so that the product is far more than the sum of its parts.

Torment, Sands of Time, Antaeus Rising, Sacrifice, Deus Ex, System Shock, Thief, Command & Conquer, Beyond Good & Evil, Knights of the Old Republic 2, Mask of the Betrayer, even Modern Warfare in some places. All these games tell stories not with hour long cutscenes or pages of text, but through player actions and the reactions of the world around him. All are brilliant examples of what this medium should aspire for.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn

So let's begin with the first game in the...

...what's that? Haven't had a single post?

Since April?

No excuse, really. I'm a poor blogger. I mainly started writing on this to get some of my ideas out in the open, and then a combination of school + work hit and blogging fell behind. And by fell behind I mean I stopped doing it entirely.

But now I've decided to kick this up again, and I'll be supplementing original posts with excerpts from my current thesis and rants snatched from a old, dead blog run by my hallmate - the Tartar Sauce.

But for now, I'm going to write about Command & Conquer.

Oh Yeah.

I'll go ahead and say that a great deal of my affection for this series is pure nostalgia. It was the first computer game I really owned, the first game I ever played online against others (across a 56k modem, no less,) and the first game that really caught my imagination. Command & Conquer is a game that still holds a place near and dear to my heart. Reason number one? I strongly suggest that you play the soundtrack while reading this to find out.

Despite my love for the series, I have tried to turn a coldly analytic eye to this franchise and examine why it captured my imagination (and not just mine, it has the third highest rating of all PC games on metacritic - not that that's a great barometer, but it helps my point.) What is it that made this series one of the most influential dynasties in PC gaming from the mid 90's until its death by corporate intervention at the turn of the Millenium? And more importantly -to me at least- why does its fiction continue to inspire me far more than most RPGs that I've played?

Part of it is how remarkably in tune with the modern world it feels. Almost twenty years later and the game still feels topical. The premise of the game - a heavily mobilized and well funded coalition of western militaries comes into conflict with an organization that uses propaganda, media control, and the resentment of the under class to effectively control the Third World - all for a precious resource that is slowly killing our planet, yet neither side can live without.

Most of it just boils down to the game being really, really, good. Going back and playing it now shows a lot of rough spots, sure - but most of those are from modern sensibilities spoiled by decades of genre evolution. It's a little disorienting to have to build each unit one at a time instead of being able to queue up a build order, or having to build each structure immediately adjacent to one you've already built.

But stick it out, and you see core mechanics that not only defined the series, but continue to set it apart from its imitators and successors.

Command & Conquer is inevitably compared to Starcraft, which is understandable, but they are very different games. Yes, you collect resources, build bases, and control units in each. While Starcraft focuses on tactics and micromanagement, C&C has always backed off on individual unit management in favor of focusing on large-scale strategy and logistics.

Take resource management. In Starcraft, most of the resources you require will be located next to your base, and you collect them with your basic "worker" unit. There are even two different types, minerals and gas, with different units requiring differing amounts of one or the other.

Giant blue crystals in your backyard.

C&C, on the other hand, has one resource. Credits. You get credits from bonus crates, selling off your units and structures, or by harvesting Tiberium.

Ah, Tiberium. Tiberium is at the heart of what makes the C&C games so damn compelling. Most strategies for taking down an entrenched opponent rely on blowing their Harvesters to smithereens then bleeding them dry - something that is possible because Tiberium, unlike the Minerals in Starcraft, are usually only found in large quantities away from your base. Thus, most games of C&C revolve around the sides fighting over the substance.

One of the things I keep harping on is cohesion, the idea that the closer a game's mechanics and narrative, the more satisfying it is. So it's a definite point in favor of C&C that the game consists of fighting over Tiberium while framed within a narrative of two sides... fighting over Tiberium.

Speaking of narrative, C&C's is pretty top notch. The full motion video briefings, while a bit hokey, are well written and directed, and the fact that most of the "actors" (nobody except Joe Kucan, the director, had any sort of acting experience) are members of the design team gives it this endearing "community theater" quality. Watch this:

Let's be honest: nobody's going to mistake that for fine cinema. But it's not poorly done, and the very fact that it's a low budget endeavor means that it's easier to overlook the flaws and go along for the ride.

But take a look at this briefing:

No kitchy actors, no funky effects, just text - and it manages to evoke isolation and desperation, a pretty impressive feat for a bit of text and some computery sounds. It accomplishes a lot through implication rather than desperation - show, don't tell. Nod has put GDI on the defensive with a brilliant PR stunt that framed GDI as the instigator of a massacre, and now GDI is operating without funding. Not only do you get a bare-bones briefing to reflect this, but the next mission you have no production facilities, instead, you have to spend limited funds repairing structures and vehicles.

What makes these cutscenes succeed where other, better funded and produced, efforts fail is the fact that they play to their strengths and downplay their weaknesses. The game doesn't waste time and energy trying to build complex character relationships, growths, and interactions. Instead, the narrative is focused on factions - exploring the ideology and methods of GDI and Nod. Dialogue is kept to a minimum. Far more time is spent fleshing out the world - the longest cutscenes just talk about how Tiberium effects the people and ecosystems it comes into contact with.

That's great and all, but what really made C&C sell back in the day was how it played.

And it played great. Even going back today, it's a treat - the interface is refreshingly simple and easy to get into. Each unit has a maximum of two weapons - most only have one. You can control the entire game efficiently with just a two-button mouse. All of your command and control needs - construction, minimap, power level indicators - are available from the sidebar. In fact, the only information you need to read from the main window is the health of your units, which means that you're not distracted by all manner of numbers and icons when you're trying to control your units.

Everything you need to know at a glance.

Another thing that's rather different from modern games is the way the game eases you into its world. The game makes you play the first couple of missions with a very low tech level - limited to basic infantry and vehicles, slowly adding the more advanced units one at a time. Even base building is approached differently - harvesting Tiberium is introduced in mission 3, for example, after the player has spent enough time learning how to move these new-fangled "units" around.

The last thing that I want to discuss that really sets C&C apart is how all of the player's controls are represented on the battlefield. Your buildings are built from a construction yard - if that gets taken out, you can't build anymore. Your harvested Tiberium is stored in silos - run out of room and any extra you gather is wasted, and if you can capture an opponent's silo then you can steal all of his money. Even your minimap is tied to a structure (the radar) and will go away if you lose power - knocking out an opponent's power plants not only makes his base operate slower, but takes away battlefield info. Even the "macguffin" resource that most games hand wave away ("Why the hell is this super valuable mineral deposit still here, unmined?") is tightly woven into the game's world - Tiberium is spreading unstoppably. In fact, if you don't harvest it, it will spread over the entire map, transforming healthy trees into bloated "blossom trees" which seed Tiberium spores.

If you've never played it, you should do so. EA recently released the game as freeware, and some have made up a handy installer to get it to run pain free on modern systems, as well as increase the default resolution. Be sure to download the movies and soundtrack!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Strategy, Tactics, Abstraction

With my introduction out of the way, it's time for an analysis of what made the Command & Conquer series so great. In order to do this, however, I'm going to need to define some very specific terms.

Real-Time Strategy. Sounds simple, right? A strategy game, but in real time. No turns. But just like our old friend the "Role-Playing Game" that genre label is often slapped on games that have little to do with "strategy."

For the purpose of in-depth critique, we're going to need to split two concepts - strategy and tactics. Strategy is the long term strategic allocation of resources. Tactics are the precise ways in which those resources are used.

Different games emphasize these two concepts to different amounts. Behold! A Diagram!
What does it mean?
So here we have a game like Command & Conquer, where your primary focus is on resource management (but there is a tactical element, as you must control your units on the battlefield.) Starcraft has much more emphasis on controlling your units in battle (special abilities, micromanagement, things like terrain elevation and tree cover being factors) but still utilizes long-term strategy to a degree (using resources to build units.) Games like Myth and Ground Control, on the other hand, have pretty much zero resource allocation - micromanagement of your troops is VERY important, but you can't choose the makeup of your forces before the mission begins (well, you can to some degree in Ground Control, hence it appearing further up the Strategy axis.) Total Annihilation and Homeworld (which didn't make it on there, but is a masterpiece and so deserves mention) both involve a heavy emphasis on controlling individual units, but I would stick Homeworld below Starcraft in quadrant IV of the graph - high tactics, lower strategy.

If you're familiar with these games, you'll probably gravitate more towards some quadrants then others. Personally, I find I really enjoy games in quadrant I and IV, but dislike II and III (despite not being able to really come up with any good examples. That's pretty much a "dead zone" most designers try to avoid.) I like grand strategy. I like micromanaging small elite units. I dislike micromanaging small elite units while also running a damn war.

Which brings us to the next key concept - abstraction.

In Command & Conquer, when you build a rifleman from a barracks, you are not literally assembling a human being inside the structure, training him, and arming him for $100. And when that same rifleman destroys a tank, it doesn't mean that he managed to make an Abrams explode with small arms. And the reason why that tank didn't blow him into itty-bitty pieces with the first shot isn't that flesh is somehow immune to high explosives.

That would be silly.

No, C&C employs a very high level of abstraction. That rifleman represents a squad of soldiers who are primarily armed with small arms. The $100 price tag for training them is simply an arbitrary amount representing the proportional cost of equipping and deploying the squad relevant to other units. The rifleman kills a tank not with a rain of bullets, but with man-portable anti-tank weaponry like RPGs or LAWs. And the tank shell is less effective against infantry because the squad can disperse and take cover, allowing them to fight effectively against a weapon designed to hit large metal things.

You'll notice that most RTS take the path of high abstraction when it comes to user interface and fiction. Units are trained and equipped with nothing but a few pieces of gold, wood, tiberium, or food. A "mighty army" consists of some footmen and a pair of knights. Your buildings look like doll houses compared to your infantry. And (my favorite) a chubby man can take over an enemy installation using nothing more than his trusty shovel.

Fear him

Total Annihilation is an exception - everything literally is built on the battlefield. By nanomachines. 'Cause everyones a ROBOT. Sacrifice is pretty low as well - since every unit is magically summoned by a wizard, and it's a game about Gods mucking about, so everything can be explained my "it's magic, moron."

The level of rules that the player is allowed to perceive is also a measure of abstraction. Starcraft does not hide its mechanics at all. Click on a unit and what do you see? A detailed breakdown of its health, special abilities, current armor, how much damage it will do, what upgrades are applied. Click on a unit in C&C and what do you get? A healthbar. Helicopters get pips representing remaining salvos, and transports get pips representing capacity. Starcraft revels in it's gameness - giving you every possible bit of data you could want. Other games don't let you see the inner workings as clearly.

Mechanics can also be abstracted. In C&C, a game whose mechanics are highly abstracted, units are limited to two weapons. Combat is fairly simple - the forces will shoot at each other until one is dead or they receive new orders. Attacks will always hit (unless it is specifically marked as being able to miss) and in general, things like cover and elevation are ignored.

In Total Annihilation, ever unit is a 3d object that takes up space. Every shot is a projectile that must travel to its target and will impact on any obstacle that happens to be in its way. Very low abstraction there. Also- very impressive.

Abstraction applies to any genre, not just RTS. FPS, RPG, all abstract things to different degrees. And that abstraction will have a pronounced effect on the feel of a game. When people whine about a game not being "realistic," they usually mean one of two things - the game is being thematically inconsistent (Phoenix Downs don't work if you die in a cutscene) or the level of abstraction employed by the game is unsatisfying to some level. System Shock 2 suffered from this, especially when it came to weapon degradation. Seriously, your guns fell apart like a Vegan during physical exertion in that game. Did wonders for the tension and atmosphere, but damn it are you really saying my gun goes from fully operational to rusty junk in a matter of three magazines?

Expect me to use these terms frequently. I might even draw more charts!

Ode to a Franchise: Command and Conquer

I promise I shall return to Wings of Liberty shortly, but first I'm going to meander off into a retrospective of the franchise which probably impacted me the most as a gamer.

Command & Conquer.

Man, just typing that brings back memories. Back in elementary school, we would periodically receive these Scholastic newsletters selling educational things - mostly young adult novels and the like, but there were a scant few educational games offered as well. Stuff like Putt-Putt goes to the Moon, Oregon Trail, and Command & Conquer.

One of these is not like the others.

A friend of mine gave me a copy of Command & Conquer Gold for my birthday when I was 9, and at a whopping 90 megabyte installation it taxed our poor beige box pentium to its limit. We even had to double our RAM to an absurd 8 megabytes before I could play it properly, with videos and everything. I loved it. It was like Army men, but cooler - lasers, tanks, helicopters - all completely awesome.

There was a period where our computer broke, and since I couldn't play the game, I would bring the manual to school and my friends and I would pore over it at lunch, discussing all the awesome units and make up grand stories about our digital exploits.

What are you giving me that look for? We were cool, ok?

Anyways, I have played this series more than any other over the years, and as I've grown and matured I've found that it is one of the few games that I still hold in such high regard. It's more than simple nostalgia.

So what is so damn appealing about this game?

There's an old saying - "Amateurs talk about Strategy. Professionals talk about Logistics." In any conflict, the winner is the side with the best logistics. America didn't "beat" Britain in a military sense in our war for independence - we just outlasted them because they had to cross an ocean to get to the warzone. The Yankee Scum didn't defeat the South in the War of Northern Aggression because they were better fighters (scientists have calculated that a Confederate drummer boy was the equivalent of four and a half Union soldiers) but because they had all the industrial might in the country and cut off the Confederacy's supply line to Europe in the dastardly Operation: Anaconda.

The focus of ANY game of C&C involves this:

And this:

Resources. Money and Power. Your supply chain. If you cut off your enemy's power supply, you can cripple his production, static defenses, even his minimap - all by taking out one structure. Knock out his harvester, and not only does he not have income, but he can't produce fighting vehicles while he's waiting for that expensive harvester to build.

You could go so far as to say that C&C is a mining game that happens to have people with guns in it.

That's a bit over the top, of course, but the fact is that the dominant mechanic in C&C is logistical planning and resource management, not military strategy.

What this means is that it is extremely intuitive. I don't have to spend an hour researching the manual to discover the nuanced ways in which my Templars can turn the tide of a conflict with perfectly positioned spells - All I have to do is keep mining Tiberium, which lets me buy tanks. Or I can spend money on better base structures. Which lets me buy bigger tanks. Or I can build some static defenses, which will help protect my base from being blowing up and taking away my ability to build tanks. But I need power to fuel that growing base. But building more power plants means I have more structures to protect, which means I need more defenses...

It's simple, but it ain't stupid. And I love it for that.

Oh, and Command & Conquer shares with Wing Commander the honor of being the only two franchises in existence to pull off Full Motion Video.