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The Quiet Year Review

Quiet Year cover

The world is full of things that should not work, but somehow do: pineapple on Pizza, or mixing opera and hip-hop, or making jokes about death. Some examples are personal, others largely universal. And to that last list we can now add a game called The Quiet Year.

The Quiet Year calls itself a map-making game, but it isn’t really, even though you do make a map as you play it. A lot of people seem to refer to it as a role-playing game but it isn’t that either, since it actively discourages you from the minutiae of its character’s lives. It’s one of a small but growing group of storytelling games, where a simple structure is used to explore the player’s imaginations.

All games share the same basic setting: a year in the life of a small post-apocalyptic community. They’ve just survived one war and at some point in the next twelve months another will begin, ending the game. What happens in between is up to you, a deck of playing cards, and some pencils and paper.

The setting is left deliberately light on detail. At the beginning the players collaborate to chose a physical setting for their community and flesh it out with a few key details. Some wooden huts, for instance, built near a poisoned lake in a forest clearing, short on food. These details are drawn on paper to begin the map that will be the focus of the game. What ended modern civilisation is not explained, nor is the founding of the community or the nature of the conflicts that shape its past and future.

This lack of detail feels very strange at first. With such a minimal framework, players start out grasping for foundations on which to build their tale. Plentiful examples in the short rulebook help a bit, but the whole thing is just too overwhelmingly strange. Not to mention the social awkwardness associated with telling a collaborative tale, not wanting to speak out with a bad idea, or accidentally choosing a wrong narrative turn and annoying your peers.

To try and combat this, the game then proceeds with players taking highly structured individual turns. First they take a card, look up its meaning in the rulebook, and choose one of two options listed to resolve. For example the six of diamonds says that outsiders arrive in the area, and asks that player to decide either why they are a threat, or how they are greeted.

It’s these cards that are the heart and soul of what makes the game work. The designer is clearly some sort of terrifying psychic. Or possibly he spent a very long time refining the choices on them to make sure they were likely to mould in to the evolving nature of the story. Either way, it’s the cards that suddenly provide the missing pieces of structure that the players need to work with.

And they’ll grasp on to those structures like they’re drowning in the limitless seas of their own imaginations. Grasp the structures, haul their bodies up onto the land and start to build. What began as awkward, hesitant suggestions will become stronger, more confident, start to interweave with one another into a coherent whole.

And this is where the cards reveal their majesty. The first few times you play the manner in which the questions and choices they pose will mirror things you’ve already mentioned in your fragile narrative threads and help you explore and strengthen them defies belief. I guess there are things about a post-apocalyptic community that are more likely to come up for discussion than others: finding food, avoiding predators, other survivors. But it still feels just a little bit like magic.

Quiet Year map

Once they’re decided on the effects of the card, the player then gets to choose from introducing a new thing to the map, starting a discussion about something that affects the community, or beginning a project, the progress of which is tracked by counting down a dice.

Through both card and action, the active player is totally in control: they decide how the card is interpreted and how their chosen action impacts the game. Discussion isn’t forbidden, but the clear intent is to keep it limited, leave the active player in charge and thus keep the game moving along. Other players can signal dissatisfaction or disagreement with the active player by taking something called Contempt Tokens.

The purpose of these tokens is simply to remember disagreements. They’re an interesting idea: there are curious social dynamics around accruing too many, or indeed too few of them which can start to leak into the game. They can be put back into the pool if someone feels the Contempt has been atoned for, or spent to allow a player to make a deliberately selfish decision.

But they’re the one thing in the game that doesn’t seem to work very well. Players are generally more interested in collaborating to make a compelling story to have serious disagreement or indeed to spend their Contempt to do nasty things to the community. There’s a shared goal to move things forward and that makes major disagreement rare. Or maybe I just played it with polite people.

Eventually the cards begin to dwindle and at some point, late in proceedings, the Frost Shepherds arrive and end the game. Their nature is left as obscure as everything else in the metagame, for the players to explore and decide themselves. As you do so, you’ll realise that you’ve told a tale of extraordinary richness, full of detail and wonder and drama. And you’ll wonder how those bare-bones mechanics helped your group fill in so many of the blanks you started out with.

There will still be blanks at the end. The sudden conclusion will undoubtedly leave many unresolved crises, unexplained mysteries and unexplored areas. But then again, so do most of the best stories. It’s disappointing, but strangely satisfying. And you’re left with a filled map to remember your exploits.

You can play the game with minimal household equipment. Buy a rules pdf, stick it on your smartphone and you can play it anywhere. Alternatively there’s a properly produced version with text on the cards and spiky contempt tokens in a little bag. The designer takes seriously the idea that his games should bring people together: if you want to buy The Quiet Year, or another one of his games, you can pay for it with good deeds.

I like this game a lot. I like the way it helps people pull the gossamer threads of a story they never knew existed out of thin air with minimal effort. It’s easier to pick up and play than trendy storytelling RPGs like Fiasco. But it’s not for everyone. Many of those I played it with were hardcore board gamers, most were quite suspicious of such an open ended game and some remained so after playing. But others joined the flow and watched their minds blossom into strange and wonderful shapes. Take a Quiet Year to yourself, and find out where it takes you.

A Story about Stories

LA Noire cars

Over a year ago there was a small explosion of outrage in the twittersphere regarding a piece in Edge magazine claiming that games can’t tell stories. It’s old, you’ve probably seen it before but then again the same is true of most of my inspiration for these articles. I was exercised enough about it at the time to want to write about it but I had no suitable mouthpiece. Now that I have, it would seem remiss if I failed to get my thoughts down while still vaguely relevant.

At the time most of the commentary regarding the article focused on the fact that it was clearly nonsense. Philosopher and designer Chris Bateman made a point of collecting gaming anecdotes from people in order to refute it. I mean, seriously, who hasn’t been awed, shocked or enthused at one time or another by the plot of a game? Whether it’s the huge twist in Knights of the Old Republic or the big reveal in Halo we’ve all encountered points in a game with enough intensity to wedge themselves permanently into our memories. So what’s an experienced and respected games journalist doing posting such twaddle?

Well personally I’m not so sure it is twaddle. I think the article contains an important point, albeit one that was perhaps not made very well. And that point is only tangentially related to story, and has everything to do with expectation.

When you put someone into a realistic, interactive environment, as most modern games do, their first assumptions are going to be that they’re in a realistic, interactive environment. They’ll explore, push boundaries, find out where the inevitable rules and limits are. But they’ll also expect that environment to push back at them, likely fairly aggressively. After all it would hardly be much of an interactive environment otherwise.

But at the same time gamers have become used to consuming games like they do cinema. They expect a plot, and characters, to engage them. Not just that but they also expect their avatar in the virtual world to be a key player in that plot. They want to feel important and powerful. Wouldn’t be much fun playing the cashier cowering behind the till when the petrol station gets robbed, would it?

This creates an instant contradiction. The gamer expects both to be able to ride a plot without foreknowledge of its twists and turns for the excitement and thrills it provides, while simultaneously being in charge of the game environment. You can’t have both. At its essence this can be expressed by the simple issue of the player killing NPCs who have pivotal roles to play in the plot. Games employ a variety of tricks to stop you ever doing this because doing so would expose the fundamental impossibility of having both a genuine story and a completely open world.

Skyrim Dawnguard E3 2012 Screenshot 7
It’s this disconnect that’s at the root of the perception that games can’t have a proper story. Not so long ago games were not particularly realistic, and they were not particularly open. Back then we were happy to consume the plot in a relatively passive way by riding the rails that the game placed us on. Technology has moved on, and so has game design. And we’ve arrived at a situation where the clash between plot and play is being exposed more frequently and more cruelly.

Currently, and quite correctly, when this conflict arises the game play is generally allowed to win over the plot. What’s less obvious is that there are other elements to what people think of as “story” besides the pre-scripted twists and turns along which the game will run. Atmosphere is one example. A game that makes good use of graphics, sound and setting to make the player feel squarely part of the virtual world that it creates can get away with a certain amount of plot railroading because it compensates for that break in realism in other ways.

Another is the emergent narrative that arises from the actions the player takes inside the mechanics and plot that the game provides. Everyone playing Gears of War will get the same plot, but the places and manner in which you kill your foes or triumph over the set-piece battles in the game will be different.

It’s a key element to consider because this is where the clashes between action and plot arise, and where a game becomes personal to the player. Designers have little foreknowledge of how people will interpret their games. Each long, languorous slow dance between a game and its player will be different, unique. And the best games only rarely manage to reach the audience that they deserve.

Mount & Blade: Warband - so ugly that I dare not show you a character's face
This emergent narrative points to one possible solution to the conflict, showcased best by the Mount and Blade games. In these titles there is no predefined plot but every effort is made to ensure the player can easily create their own instead. There is a flavourful world to explore, peopled with realistic and well-differentiated characters, and a slew of quests to complete alongside a meta-game which can lead toward various conclusions that most gamers would recognise as “success” of one kind or another.

But the problem with Mount and Blade is that it can take a long play time before even the most imaginative player appreciates and understands the game and its world sufficiently well to start building their own railroad. It’s simply nowhere near as engaging as a title that gives you a character, a motivation and a story and drops you into exciting action from the get go.

Adding plot to an open world setting, the solution explored by the Elder Scrolls games amongst others, tends to result in the worst of all worlds, as I’ve explored previously. That way the player tends to get sidetracked from the plot, while finding that it still has to conflict with their freedom of action. Long term this is probably the solution we should be seeking to explore. But the technology isn’t there yet. Frontier Developments tried with current generation consoles with a title called The Outsider, which attempted to defy linear storytelling in just the manner we’ve been exploring. But six years later the game is sidelined in development hell, because the hardware isn’t there yet.

That’s unfortunate. Not only because of the wonderful new directions that non-linear storytelling could take games in, but because I’ve started to suspect that its absence has become a real stumbling block over the progress of the medium. Lately we’ve discussed the issue of the clumsy manner in which violence is handled in most games. Could that be partly because the sort of subtle, nuanced plotting required to portray such serious issues sensitively requires exactly the kind of linear plots modern gaming eschews in favour of open-world design? Seems possible. It may well we need the means to overcome the fundamental contradiction between plot and play before gaming can truly grow into the mature form it deserves to be.

Mordin Solus: Where Mass Effect 3 Gets Everything Right

Since the release of the “Extended Cut” DLC a couple of weeks ago, I have been studiously replaying Mass Effect 3. Yes, I realize I can just re-do the ending from my first trip through the game, and I have (the very last bits anyway), but I’ve been looking for an excuse to bring forward my renegade Femshep from Mass Effects 1 and 2 and this gave me that excuse. This post isn’t about the ending, however. You’ve heard all about that already and have your own opinion. This post is about Mordin Solus, whose storyline in Mass 3 I just wrapped up for the second time.

The Solus resolution struck me on a couple of fronts. One, he’s one of the more engaging characters in the Mass Effect universe. He’s an intriguing character in Mass Effect 2 and is even better here. What makes him such an interesting case study in Mass Effect 3, however, isn’t just that he’s a great character, it’s that his story can have such radically different results based on decisions you made across all three Mass Effect games. (Yes, all three.) More impressive than that is the fact that each of the three radically different outcomes I’m aware of, are universally well done. Mordin Solus is the face of everything the Mass Effect series is capable of getting right.

In the rest of this post thar be spoilers. Ye been warned…

The climax to Mordin’s story takes place on Tuchanka, the Krogan homeworld. The humans need Turian fleet support to defend Earth, the Turians require Krogan aid on their own homeworld. The Krogan, as a condition for their aid, want cured the Genophage, a bio-weapon inflicted on them in the past that prevents them from reproducing in massive numbers. Solus, a Salarian scientist who’s worked on preserving created the Genophage, has made the cure his mission. Throwing an added wrinkle into the mix is the Salarian government, who will withhold their own aid in the main fight against the Reapers if you do allow the Genophage to be cured. As Sheperd, it’s up to you to decide if you want to allow the cure to be sabotaged or distributed via a large tower on Tuchanka that is very near to collapse.

The fate of Mordin Solus can, at its simplest, be broken down into three big outcomes, though there are numerous smaller variations too:

– Mordin dies curing the Genophage (Paragon)
– Mordin dies failing to cure the Genophate (Renegade)
– Mordin lives, failing to cure the Genophage (Renegade + other criteria)

The first time I played through this sequence I helped Mordin distribute the cure. The portrayal of his sacrifice, going to the top of the unstable tower to prevent the Salarian sabotage from succeeding, was among the two most poignant moments in the game. When Mordin enters the elevator, turns to face Sheperd and says with genuine conviction and warmth, “Anyone else might have gotten it wrong,” I get chills.

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It’s a noble end to a noble character. The Krogan are cured and will be able to resume making babies, presuming the galaxy survives the Reaper threat. They’ll also lend their aid to the Turians, freeing the Turians to aid Earth. It’s a win-win-lose situation, however, because it also means Sheperd loses the support of the Salarian government. As Sheperd, you have to ask yourself, are all your so-called “principles” worth it if not getting Salarian aid means defeat at the hands of the Reapers.

(Note: the actual numbers, in terms of breaking down war assets, are a bit more complicated than I describe them here. I’m basing this on what knowledge Sheperd has at the moment he/she is making decisions. If you want a more specific breakdown of the actual consequences, check out the “Aftermath” section on this page of the ME3 Wiki.)

If you play out the Renegade path, Mordin discovers the Salarian sabotage of the Genophage cure, also realizing that you are complicit in it. He isn’t shocked by this revelation, just sad. At that point you can try to talk him out of going up the tower, but excepting some very specific circumstances, he won’t listen to you. From there you can only let him proceed or shoot him. If you shoot him, he still goes to the top of the tower, but doesn’t have the strength to drag himself to the control console before he dies. What’s wonderful about this choice is that if you’re really playing Sheperd as the renegade, and not as pure evil, there’s ample reason to shoot him. Throughout the series it’s easy to play Sheperd as pro-genophage. The Krogan are a very real threat. Support of the Salarian government can also be viewed as critical to the cause. If you sabotage the cure you get the aid of the Krogan (who don’t know the cure is sabotaged) and the Salarian. That’s a Machiavellan power-play that’s all too easy to see Sheperd willing to make. The only question is, are you willing to kill one of the good guys to make it happen?

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Compared to the Paragon sequence above, there are two brilliantly powerful lines from Mordin here. One, when he uncharacteristically shouts “I MADE A MISTAKE!” in regards to creating preserving the Genophage and then destroying Maelon’s research into a cure. Mordin is not a guy who makes mistakes. To hear the emotion when he’s force to admit this realization, out loud, is a stirring moment. It’s followed-up a moment later when he also uses the line “Anyone else might have gotten it wrong.” It’s the same line as in the Paragon scenario, but it’s a completely different context and delivery and the contrast is stunning. This isn’t bravery mixed with humorous resignation. This is anger and betrayal justifying precisely why he has to do things himself.

The fallout if you do this, which isn’t shown here, is also amazingly well done. The cure fails, but the Krogan have no idea. As Sheperd you look Wrex right in the face as he expresses his gratitude to you and his admiration of Mordin. When you return to the Normandy there’s an additional dialog with Garrus in which he, too, expresses his respect for Mordin’s sacrifice and you have no choice but to make like his was a noble sacrifice, all the while knowing you murdered him in cold blood.

It’s also an incredible moment because there’s an argument to made you’ve done the *right* thing. Leaders in a war have to make sacrifices. At what point do the ends justify the means? Role playing a Sheperd who will do anything for the cause ought to make these choices easy, but they were anything but. I knew what the Sheperd envisioned in my mind would be willing to do. But what was I, as the player, willing to do? It was genuinely hard to make the choice to pull the trigger, but the payoff in the story made it entirely worthwhile. I felt genuine remorse in the aftermath of the murder, but better than that, I could see that same bitter remorse reflected in my character on the screen.

The third scenario, in which you talk Mordin out of trying to stop the sabotage of the Genophage cure, is also striking in that it requires a very specific pattern of decisions on Sheperd’s part, reaching across all three games. In Mass 1 you have to have crossed and killed Wrex. In Mass 2 you have to have destroyed the cure research data of a corrupt Salarian scientist named Maelon. Doing so results in Eve’s death as Mordin attempts to finalize the cure. And in Mass 3 you have to keep secret the Salarian plan to sabotage the cure, right up until the end. If you do all that, and have a high Renegade rating, you can talk Mordin out of stopping the sabotage because the Krogan, without Wrex or Eve to guide them, are far too inclined to seek revenge for the existence of the Genophage in the first place. Even Mordin must acknowledge the cure is too risky. Mordin lives and becomes a war asset, the Krogan aid the Turians, and you get Salarian aid. This, in terms of pure war assets, is actually the best possible outcome and easily the hardest to achieve.

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When I think about how Mass Effect 3 ended, I’m not disappointed because the story took turns I couldn’t accept. I don’t like it because there’s not nearly enough of this. It’s a whole game devoted to the collection of assets for the final battle, but the battle itself is not notably altered based on your success in collecting said assets. The battle (not just the resolution) is not in any way a cumulative result of your decisions in Mass 3, let alone all three games. Mordin Solus’s story, conversely, is a blissful example of where Mass Effect 3 gets everything right. This is Bioware at their absolute best. Choices you’ve made through all three games come together in the final moments of a pivotal part of the story and, no matter what you do, the story executes on them flawlessly, each path pulling different emotional strings appropriate to the actions you’ve taken.


And just because no post on Mordin is complete without it…

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