MANILA, JUNE 20, 2008
(STAR) By Eden Estopace - The warriors on the PC screen are an inventive lot. They can be a fugitive on the run, a pirate in the high seas, an undercover agent, a madman aiming for global dominion, a one-man demolition crew chasing a crime gang. Or they can be toon cats playing footsie with the neighbor mouse, dashing danseurs on the Russian stage, or James Bond look-alikes driving a vintage Alfa Romeo.

In the role-playing game (RPG) genre, the appeal of make-believe is in the possibilities of taking on an identity far different from one’s own. These keyboard-punching, mouse-clicking, sleep-deprived idealists are always on the lookout for anything that can shoot the adrenalin up. Yes, it’s about the rush and the addictive high of pushing the fingers to the limits, similar to the Olympic ethos of faster, higher, stronger.

Hail the local game masters for raising the bar for PC gaming and making an industry out of a recreation genre that is still in its infancy even in other parts of the world. But for too long, local gamers have to make do with foreign themes, strange settings, and exotic languages and ethos vastly remote from one’s realities. However, there have been various attempts to introduce local color into the face of Philippine gaming. A most recent development is the entry of the academe in games publishing, albeit within the bounds of a structured theme for learning. The professors, programmers and graphic artists of De La Salle University (DLSU), however, say that gameplay need not be affected by its pedagogic slant.

In a lunchtime tete-a-tete with Dr. Miguel Rapatan, interface designer, director and writer of the soon-to-launch “Asean Quest: Ten Countries, One Mission” single RPG, he says anything that is entertaining like action-filled RPGs can also be pedagogically useful.

“We do not believe that children (or teenagers) are merely passive receivers and do not exercise their critical faculties when playing,” he says. “We believe that they are active processors of media content. What makes a game educational (even in its pure play form) is that they get feedback from their actions. The outcome of the game is affected by their choices. Therefore, they learn to make better choices and decisions to move the game forward. The feedback they get makes them redirect their choices. This way, the child (or player) builds knowledge or skills. It doesn’t have to feel like it came straight from Encyclopedia Britannica.”

Goal-oriented gaming

True to form, in Asean Quest, the player is asked to take on the role of an operations manager tasked to oversee the restoration of power grids all over Southeast Asia after a violent storm. In building power plants that also function as alternative energy sources in light of the oil crisis gripping the globe, one has to make choices whether to build a hydro, wind, solar, biofuel or nuclear plant in every Asean country.

Since players do not really intellectualize their onscreen choices, the clicking and mousing over frenzy takes on a more cautious pace when one is “advised” by a “consultant” that a solar power plant one proposes to build, say in the northern part of Laos, would not work because the terrain is not fit for such infrastructure. The three “consultants” of the operations chief — a diplomat, a social scientist and an economist — may as well be the “embedded educators” in disguise, warning the player of the logic, expense, and overall soundness of the plan, sometimes praising the player for a choice well made.

“Remember that what you do for one country should benefit other countries,” orders the voice with a thick Singaporean accent from the control tower.

Rapatan says it is important for a game to be engaging because when you are immersed in the game, it increases the motivation of the player to pursue the goals set early in the game, unmindful of the “lessons” to be learned every step of the way.

This, in part, can probably assuage the fears of the non-gaming community’s concern about children and teens being hooked to a kind of computer “addiction” that takes up time that should have been devoted to, say, doing homework or housework.

The most challenging part of making of Asean Quest, Rapatan discloses, is that they have to integrate Asean concepts — the project being funded by the Asean Foundation — within the gaming framework without necessarily losing the basic elements of fantasy and action that RPGs are known for.

Asean theme

The Asean flavor came through subtly in many different sections of the game, including the use of the local language for “welcome” as passwords for entry and the use of national anthems as background music for each country.

In building a power plant in countries where culture and religion runs deep like in certain parts of Vietnam and Cambodia, one is told to incur the favor of the temple gods, whose altars were ruined by the storm. The task at hand is to find all the objects needed to restore the altars and other places of worship. This exercise unleashes the sleuth in every gamer, the kind that is closely similar to finding a needle in a haystack, though the missing objects are quite familiar and any Asian would readily recognize such as Buddha statues, incense sticks, food offering for the gods, local flowers and ancient vases, candles and candleholders.

“It is important for the characters,” Rapatan says, “to have not just action goals but histories. In an RPG, the characters and setting must be very interesting because you have to transport the gamer to an action-oriented world.” In Asean Quest, that world is Southeast Asia, a land of diversity and color inhabited by approximately 500 million people.

Dr. Filemon Uriarte Jr., executive director of the Asean Foundation, affirms that gaming and learning could be intertwined. “That is why in promoting awareness for the Asean, we chose to build a game instead of utilizing traditional medium such as print to disseminate information. It is the medium that young people understand. It is difficult enough to get the interest of the general public and the adults, how much more young people with shorter attention spans. So, we thought of a game that would be interesting to most of them,” he explains.

The game, which was developed with a $90,000 grant from the foundation, will be launched first week of July in Manila during the Asean Youth Summit, which will be attended by youth representatives from Asean’s 10 member-countries, including the science ministers and even representatives from Asean’s dialogue partners like Japan and Korea.

“We have produced initially 1,000 copies of the game which will be distributed during the event. We hope to promote the game by distributing it for free in different schools,” Uriarte says. “If young people will copy it or distribute to more people, that would be better for us and would really help our goal on dissemination information about Asean.”

Rapatan admits that a PC game has a shelf life, and that normally, as soon as a game is out in the market, a sequel is already in the works. In the tradition, for example, of Half-Life and Half-Life 2, Final Fantasy I-XIII, the story must continue if only to fulfill fully the foundation’s goal of creating awareness — and a sustained one at that — on Southeast Asia as a regional bloc among young people. It probably makes sense to think of the after-market.

A possible sequel

Uriarte says a sequel is indeed a big possibility, as the game’s content also needs to be updated from time to time.

“Things are changing fast in Southeast Asia or anywhere in the world. There is a need to continuously upgrade, and in so doing, we may as well modify or update the programming or the story to fit new contexts,” he says, adding that this would be in the horizon sooner than expected if the game would have good feedback from the gamers.

During a mock-up competition held at De La Salle University to test the appeal of the game to its target audience, Jessica Camba, programming supervisor of the project, says the feedback was very positive and the students from the College of Computer Science and the College of Engineering had a good time competing to build the Asean power grid in the fastest time and garnering the most number of points.

There is much room for improvement, though. Rapatan says that if DLSU’s Center for Educational Multimedia (CREM) will be tapped again to do a sequel of Asean Quest, they would explore the opportunity of going beyond the regular single RPG type.

“We would make the characters, plot, settings, goals more complex, more culturally and historically defined, and perhaps with goals that are country-specific. It would also be more collaborative, interactive,” he says.

In fact, the DLSU CREM team would have done that if not for the time constraints in developing the game. They finished the project in a record 10 months, from March to December 2007. According to Rapatan, it normally takes two to three years to develop a game of that scope.

However, even as a single RPG, it would take a while for one gamer to explore Asean Quest. In this 10-country mission to build the Asean energy grid, the gamer hops from one Asean country to another and the game is rich with details and twists. It is not possible to experience all the action in one, two, three or maybe even four sittings.

Camba says that one can finish the game in two to three hours, depending on how fast one can solve the problems and connect the energy grid. Yet, one three-hour session would leave many parts of the game unexplored. This gamer did not experience one part of the game because of an on-the-spot decision not to build a biofuel plant in any part of the region.

Like building a hydro power plant, which requires the gamer to restore temples to earn the nod of the gods, or building a nuclear plant, which takes the gamer to an underworld where nuclear weapons are smuggled, the building of a biofuel plant has a pre-requisite task, which Camba hints is an action-filled adventure related to pest control.

Due to time constraints, this gamer also did not go on a “holiday” as a reward for restoring the temples in Vietnam. But it would have been interesting to “travel” throughout Southeast Asia on an onscreen sightseeing tour, if only to appreciate more what each country has to showcase.

But that is the nature of games. As in life, you have to forego certain “pleasures” to score a point, rush to the finish line or get on faster than the rest of humanity. In gaming, though, there is always a next session, very much like traditional fiction where the plot deepens and the understanding of the characters’ motivation changes with every re-reading.

In the parallel world of gaming, play it all over again and you get a richer experience because you make choices that shape the game’s outcome, which brings in the concept of individuality in a collaborative, social experience.

For the sequel that is not yet in the horizon, this gamer would vote for more action, speed and bigger elements of the exotic and fantastic like a ride on an elephant’s back while crossing the Thai border to Cambodia, actual consultations with the shamans, magicians, sorcerers and fortunetellers of Bangkok, observing the monks in prayers at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar, or sailing up the Mekong in Luang Prabang to that famous cave with the 7,000 Buddhas.

Like Rapatan, this gamer dreams of a sequel that would bare more of Southeast Asia’s soul like swaying to the beat of the dance of Shiva, or climbing up the Petronas Tower in Kuala Lumpur. But not since the launch of “Anito: Defend A Land Enraged” has there probably been another local PC game made for screen warriors with exotic Asia and the Asian culture as backdrop. So, let the games begin!

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved