Theories of a Gamer – Ambiguously Unambiguous Evil

gravekeeperhero_0

I’m not quite ready to give a full review of Graveyard Keeper by Lazy Bear Games; I’m about eight hours in, and I can’t stop playing. Just know that I’m missing a lot of time in Minecraft and Final Fantasy XIV performing autopsies, burying “sinless” corpses in the local graveyard, throwing “sinful” corpses into the river, and giving sermons at the local church in the hopes that someday mods will be developed that make this already very engrossing game perfect.

So yeah, I guess that’s a good early review, at least.

I’ve never played a game that gives you the gameplay options it does without throwing out the following message in nearly any way:

randomfalloutthingsswedeniamdoingthingsagainsweden_8ba6c6_6193365

I say nearly because the main character, the titular graveyard keeper, upon learning what his job entitled (namely, the dismemberment and disembowelment of human corpses in order to dispose of them) complains about it. Just once, though. After that, you, the player, are free to harvest all that meat, blood, bone, and brain matter to your heart’s content (and the corpse’s heart’s content, too, don’t forget those). No need to worry, however. It’s all in the name of… SCIENCE. Besides, they’re dead; they’re not going to need all those entrails and flesh. Why not put them to better use instead?

If you’re at all familiar with Fallout 3, you might remember the story of the little town of Andale and the families that lived there: not only were the only two remaining families incredibly inbred, but their source of food in that dark urban wasteland was none other than the visitors and raiders that happened upon the small collection of still-standing homes and shacks. Don’t agree with the lifestyle the residents of Andale enjoy? Don’t worry, you’ll soon change your mind… once they invite you to dinner.

You get one but two trope/memes out of Andale: “DON’T LOOK IN THE BASEMENT” and “STAY OUT OF MY SHED” (specifically SHED.MOV, NSFW but entertaining). Choosing the “good” ending for Andale ends with defending yourself from these well-dressed and well-mannered knife-wielding maniacs.

The Wanderer: “Bring home the bacon? Those are people, not bacon! What the f-ck?”

Jack Smith: “Hey! I’ll have none of that language in this house!”

The Wanderer: “I can’t believe I’m being called a potty mouth by a cannibal…”

Jack Smith: “Okay, that’s it. I warned you. Now I’m going to sock your jaw, mister.”

maxresdefault

Mmm, strange meat.

Unfortunately for Jack, his wife, and his neighbors, death by the Wanderer’s combat shotgun and his companion Charon ensues. Yes, that’s the “good” ending, the murder (admittedly in slightly self-defense) of all the cannibal adults. The two children go to live with their grandpa Old Man Harris (yes, they are cousins, and they were set to be married once they grew up, meaning their parents were siblings, incest did in fact occur…). From one point of view (the karma-aligned “good” choice), these children will grow up as normal as one can in the Wasteland without the influence of their cannibalistic lineage. But at the same time, while the parent’s crimes were great, these children are left bereft of their parents in a very unforgiving world without a source of food, employment, or protection. Would Old Man Harris and the children abandon Andale? Likely, if only to distance themselves from their destructive heritage. Will they move to Rivet City or Megaton for protection? Likely, as Andale is fairly remote and dangerous for an old man and two kids. Will they all have trouble integrating into normal society? Very likely; the only contact with the outside world the children had was with visitors that disappeared pretty quickly and reappeared as a breakfast menu item.

Of course, the binary karma system of Fallout 3 doesn’t take into account many of these particulars, and time constraints in game design mean the family never moves away from Andale in-game, despite how little sense it makes to remain there. In Black-And-White-Land, cannibals = bad and dead cannibals = good, no matter the other consequences.

Old Man Harris: “Better an orphan than a cannibal I guess?”

Graveyard Keeper, on the other hand… is definitely not Stardew Valley.

Right after learning how to butcher- er, autopsy a corpse, you’ll learn how to cook! And what’s the first thing you’ll learn how to cook? Baked meat! And where does this baked meat come from?

…th-the corpses!?

2018-05-28-14

Just don’t tell ’em you’ve turned into a cannibal. Keep that on the way down low.

Worse, you learn that the village for which you gravekeep is in the midst of a meat shortage, and the only way you could sell meat is if you had a royal stamp proving that it was well-sourced and fit for human consumption. After all, there’s been rumors going around of someone forging a stamp and selling suspicious meat… and we wouldn’t want to be caught selling strange meat, would we? No, especially since everyone’s pretty sure the Graveyard Keeper doesn’t own livestock! Haha! No, we wouldn’t want that, would we?

But we can. That’s a thing you can do in Graveyard Keeper. Not only are you encouraged to chop up and eat corpse meat (for a guy from the present day looking to return to his own time, he sure takes to cannibalism like a duck to water), you can “disguise” the meat with a royal stamp and sell it to the tavern owner as “legit” packaged meat for a pretty good profit. And as long as you toss the bodies into the river or cremate them afterwards, the bodies from which you procure the meat won’t spoil your pristine graveyard with all their icky red skull “sins”.

And you get all of this without a single hint of this:

I’m not sure which is worse: Fallout 3 with its ambiguous and overly-simplistic expressions of morality, or Graveyard Keeper with its unambiguous uncomplaining evil that would become obvious to even the most ignorant villager if they tailed behind the graveyard keeper for even half a day. In Fallout, you can choose to be a raider or a slaver, and spend all day slapping slave collars around the necks of children and the elderly. You can murder almost every NPC you meet. These are things you can do. In Graveyard Keeper, you can strip the skin off of the recently deceased and refine it into sheets of paper upon which you can write a church sermon to present to your ignorant congregation. You can turn human flesh into delicious burgers that restore your energy. These are things you can do.

But one game tells you what you’re doing is evil and one doesn’t. Two important questions: should a game alert you when you’re doing “bad” things? And should the game be responsible for telling the player what they’re doing is evil?

#1: I don’t think so.

#2: I believe so, to a point. What that point is depends on the message the game wants to send. And Graveyard Keeper is anything but a solemn soul-searching narrative of inner darkness.

Of course, Fallout 3 and Graveyard Keeper are two entirely different beasts, and not entirely comparable. But I find it fascinating how cannibalism in Fallout is a trait that must be sought out and used, all consequences be damned… And in Graveyard Keeper, it’s pretty much acknowledged from the beginning that harvesting meat from the dead is a good and expected way to make money. Is this lack of a “morality system” a fault on GK’s part? Or is the ambiguity the only thing that separates it from Stardew Valley and other resource management and crafting games?

I’m not sure! But time willing, the game’s review will be my next blog!

Theories of a Gamer – The Protagonist

Untitled-1

Are you familiar with the “Valve Narrative Formula”?

Y’know, the “Valve Narrative Formula”. It goes like this: your game is a first-person shooter where the only evidence for your character’s identity are the arms that carries the guns and possibly the reflections you see in mirrors/portals. Other than that, the protagonist is embarrassingly silent through their entire stressful ordeal, presenting the non-player characters as the almighty bearers of total narrative structure and progress.

Gordon Freeman from Half-Life and Chell from Portal are mirrors of the player, meant to say nothing and meant to be nothing besides a moving camera for the player to experience the story unfold around them. A story, I might add, that would have been radically different had the main character been given a voice with which to protest and reason. I mean, from nerdy nuclear physicist in a hazard suit to a one-man global-alien-regime-toppling army? Only in a video game. In fact, I would make the argument that Half-Life 2’s real protagonist is Alyx Vance, because the real character development (and loss of family, spoilers I guess) belongs to her – if Gordon Freeman lost family to the Resonance Cascade and subsequent Seven Hour War, he never remembers it in a flashback or reacts to it and the player never sees evidence of it. And for Portal 2’s case, I think you’ll find that GLaDOS is the one that develops from a cold and calculating AI murderbot to a cold and calculating AI murderbot that allows Chell her freedom. For GLaDOS, that’s saying something.

Most voiceless protagonists (especially the ones who use bigger and ever bigger guns to do the talking for them) are placed in a world where reason and compromise have been thrown out of window. For the Doomslayer, there are no words that will eradicate the forces of Hell (or force the enigmatic Samuel Hayden to back down from exploiting Hell for its power). For Samus Aran, you can’t talk your way out of a metroid’s maw (unless you make her into an overly dramatic and badly written character like in Metroid: Other M). For Chrono or Serge from Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross, let’s face it… your friends are going to talk for you, just nod and say yes (but they might just abandon you once you’re dead anyway). And as it turns out, Link is either too early to save Hyrule (Ocarina of Time), too late (Wind Waker), or just plain under-prepared (all of them, but especially Breath of the Wild for plot reasons), but he gets the courage to fight all the same.

Everyone has the same argument. Which one is better: a voiced protagonist that holds the plot hostage just like a movie or first-person novel protagonist would, or a voiceless protagonist upon which the player can mirror themselves and make their own decisions? And then what about voiced characters that speak according to the choices you make? Does the fact that Lara Croft and Nathan Drake can speak make Tomb Raider and Uncharted any less fun? Does the voiced protagonist in Fallout 4 take you further into or further out of your immersion? Does a voiceless protagonist make you wonder what your motivations are supposed to be beyond “do thing, get loot, level up, hooray”?

zelda-breath-of-the-wild-idyllic-scene

Onward, Epona #75! I can’t afford to pay 1,000 rupees to the Horse God!

But instead of all those well-trod arguments, let’s instead turn the voiceless protagonist trope on its head: what if you have a main character that is an absolute chatterbox, won’t stop talking to himself (or herself) about everything he (she) observes and experiences, makes all the decisions for himself (or herself)… and is surrounded by “NPCs” that have no voice, no emotion, and no personality? Or, better yet, what if they develop a personality based on the kinds of inputs and interactions the player has around and with them?

Could this be fun and entertaining, or in the very least, not annoying?

A game that comes to mind first off (that is certainly not annoying) would be What Remains of Edith Finch and other games that could be called “walking simulators” . The narration in the game comes solely from Edith revisiting her childhood home for the first time in many years, and retelling all of the stories she heard and lessons she learned while living there as a child. But that kinda breaks the rules, as all the other characters presented have “voices” all their own as you learn their stories. No, I’m talking about a game where the characters have little to no personality besides what the player can reflect onto them instead of the other way around.

The first type of this game that comes to mind is a person who starts off sane, but starts talking to random objects around their office/cubicle/workshop/tool shed/submarine/nuclear launch bay/presidential bunker and gives them personalities by talking to themselves at first, then to the objects themselves as they go slowly insane from boredom or isolation. The isolation would be necessary to maintain an excuse for the lack of actual active NPCs, and the tone could turn anywhere from comedic and light-hearted “oh look the shiny red button is talking to me” madness to tragic “why won’t all the voices stop” madness. I think a game like this would either require a very talented team of writer/designer/programmers who know how to take dialogue and mix it up so that every game is a unique, player-driven experience, or a team of writer/designers working to tell a very specific story about isolation, mental illness, the power of boredom, or all of the above. An example of this (but only kind of) would be the Lab Rat comic from the Portal series; poor Rattman has only one friend in the whole world left, and he slowly hears the voice of his bestest friend in the whole world (the Companion Cube) go silent right when he needs him the most after he takes his antipsychotic meds.

Untitled-2

The Enrichment Center reminds you that the Weighted Companion Cube will never threaten to stab you and, in fact, cannot speak. In the event that the Weighted Companion Cube does speak, the Enrichment Center urges you to disregard its advice.

Another idea that comes to mind would be more akin to the whale from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxya character that is so brand-new to the world that they start giving names to objects they see, and then giving them personalities based on what you think they do (naturally everything will HAVE to be taste-tested first). I think it would be rather silly to be in control of an infant learning about the world while the thoughts going through the baby’s head sounded very excited and slightly British, but that’s just my enthusiasm for Douglas Adams. Again, it would have to take place during a period of isolation, in a crib or a playroom, some place without other active NPCs. Maybe you can meet an object that hurts you or smells bad, creating a negative personality that then calls you bad names, making you upset enough to cry and call for Mom, which would reset the experience. Again, you could set the tone to be light-hearted and funny or as tragic and terrible. It reminds me of Among the Sleep if you’re angling for horror, as experiencing a dark and stormy night as an infant can be a very frightening experience.

Just a thought exercise, that’s all. What other ideas come to mind when you play a chatterbox protagonist surrounded by mute companions?

Edit: It just occurred to me that my theory put into practice could produce something like Bubsy 3D. Heaven help us.

81008282

Mental Chains – A Bit More on Shame

shame-927084_1920-1024x995

In response to my last blog, which was written mostly out of frustration at what I was feeling and what I was thinking, I wanted to clarify a bit more by what I mean by ‘shame’. When you hear the word ‘shame’, you often hear it in the context of someone pointing a finger at a politician and declaring “shame on you” after they’ve done something reprehensible. If caught red-handed, you’ll also hear that politician say, “I am ashamed of my actions” (whether they are or aren’t is entirely another issue, haha).

But that’s not really the kind of shame I’m describing. It goes farther than feeling ‘shame’ for what you’ve done, and goes into feeling shame for who you are. In fact, it feels like there should be an entirely separate word for this kind of fully internalized shame in the English language. But alas, English is again inefficient at describing something that’s such a big part of my life at the moment.

This article by Behavioral Health Evolution about shame-based thinking is exactly it: “The hallmark of shame is a constant awareness of our defects. Without realizing it, we become continual victims of shame-based thinking. Every day, we focus on our failures. Every day, we re-convince ourselves that we are defective. Our thoughts become riddled with judgment, regret, and images of impending failure. When we consciously articulate these shame-based thoughts, we might be shocked at their severity.”

(Speaking of continual victimhood, here’s my one potentially-political viewpoint for this blog, and I put it in parenthesis because it’s unrelated but relevant; I’m “covering my bases,” you could say, for the future. For those of you who stumble on this blog and think you spy yet another “precious snowflake Millennial” looking to play the depression victim card in order to gain some kind of advantage in life, that’s real cute. First of all, you read nerdy WordPress blogs to search out people to belittle? Second, “snowflake”, “Millennial”, and “victim card” are all modern buzzwords whose use identifies you more than they identify me. Third, am I not human? Are you not human too? Get over yourself and seek to connect with someone instead of putting them down. I promise to do the same for you. Fourth, I fully realize that I’ve chosen to be a victim many times in my life, and I have yet to find the ways it gains me any kind of leverage. In fact, the only advantage my depression gives me at all is an increased feeling of empathy for those that have depression. Everyone goes through some soul-searching every once in a while, and those that don’t are selling something.)

(More than a few times on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve seen people arguing against someone with a mental illness, insisting that they’re using their “victim complex” as an excuse to slack off or think differently. I’ve even seen this beloved clip from The Princess Bride used as a weapon to attack people with mental illness. It makes me sick every time I see it. If these “victim complexes” exist among my age group as deeply as you think they do, your first course of action is to indulge them and actually make them victims of your “righteous” indignation? Or, if you believe that mental illness is more than just a petty excuse, you’re choosing to attack and devour the weakest among us anyway? Do you not know the power that anonymous words on the internet have over the introverted? Isn’t there enough shame in the world for those that deserve it that you feel the need to pass some more around just for good measure?)

(Anyway. I’m not arguing against the existence of a “victim complex”, because, to be honest, that’s what the shame cycle is: a self-inflicted victimhood. Nine times out of ten, you don’t have to point this out to anyone with a mental illness. No, I’m arguing against anyone shaming those that dare wear their hearts on their sleeves and share their personal experiences with mental illness. One in five of us suffers from some form of mental ailment. If you’ve never suffered an inexplicable panic attack in a public place, endured depression or PTSD huddled alone in a dark closet, or finance and relationship-ruining mania in your long and storied life, consider yourself blessed.)

(For everyone else, thank you for reading my rant, and I will continue.)

The article shares the following examples of shame-based thinking:

  • I am defective (damaged, broken, a mistake, flawed).
  • I am dirty (soiled, ugly, unclean, impure, filthy, disgusting).
  • I am incompetent (not good enough, inept, ineffectual, useless).
  • I am unwanted (unloved, unappreciated, uncherished).
  • I am weak (small, impotent, puny, feeble).
  • I am bad (awful, dreadful, evil, despicable).
  • I am pitiful (contemptible, miserable, insignificant).
  • I am nothing (worthless, invisible, unnoticed, empty).
270039-jiddu-krishnamurti-quote-we-all-place-ourselves-at-various-levels

“Why you desire to wipe out the past is of more significance than knowing how to wipe it out. The intention with which you approach the problem is more important than knowing what to do about it.”

“Shame develops as the slow, relentless accumulation of such thoughts,” the article continues, “one self-insult at a time, delivered to ourselves over weeks, months, and years. Notice that each of the previous statements starts with the words I am. This reinforces our definition of shame as a state of being that goes far beyond anything we do or fail to do.”

I didn’t reach the point I’m at now in a single day. This kind of self-punishing thinking is something I’ve developed for many years, possibly through my entire life. I remember my mom asking me once, “Where and when did you learn to think about yourself this way?” I didn’t have an answer for her, and I still don’t. It really did come gradually until one day I realized I hated myself and that my brain had tricked itself into believing a lie: that I had to be a perfect, mistake-free being in order to be whole.

And this shame cycle isn’t solely concentrated on the self alone: it colors how we view everyone around us as well. The article points to other authors and their views that shame spreads itself around; shame-based thinking can lead to:

  • Negative explanations of other people’s behavior
  • Dire predictions
  • Selective focus on negative aspects of events
  • Doubt in coping skills
  • Rigid rules about how people should behave

I may not be the brightest light in the sky, but I don’t believe I have these negative beliefs about the intentions of other people; in the very least I haven’t developed them in the last ten years since I’ve come to understand myself and my depression. In fact, I find the “rigid rules” part to be surprising, because if anything, my feelings about letting people live the life they want to live has actually loosened quite a bit since my mission – “live and let live,” I say. But maybe that’s not what it means, I’ll have to do more research. “Selective focus on negative aspects of events”, on the other hand, I do see quite a lot in myself. When something bad happens (or when an event has the potential for badness to occur), I don’t often think about what good could arise from it. I don’t see the silver lining in the clouds.

As for solving my shame-filled thoughts… maybe I’ll save that for another day. I’m already running late on this blog, and I won’t use the release of the one on Friday as an excuse to release this one tomorrow! I shan’t!

I apologize for my scatterbrain brain scatter (that word is legitimately a single word, according to Google, neat), and Thursday’s blog will be more joyous and game-filled!

Mental Chains – Guilt, But Mostly Shame

shame

Getting to the heart of depression and anxiety is always difficult.

Firstly, the mind is really good at tricking itself, hiding the real problem in plain sight and digging around it in search of a fast solution. Being honest with yourself can be very difficult since the reality of self is so easily obscured by depression. “I’m fat, I’m ugly, no one likes me,” I may say. Or, more deceptively, “I feel this way because of all the times I’ve screwed up.” Often, the number, severity, or amount of time since the perceived mistakes will be irrelevant. The mere memory of them will cause a downward spiral that can feel impossible to escape from. Without the ability to look on the bright side of just about anything, how could anyone be expected to rise above the strength of such thoughts?

Don’t get me wrong – my medications have been sent from heaven, and help me feel 1000% more in control of my mind than I would had my doctors and I never discovered the correct cocktail. But that doesn’t mean every day is filled with rainbows and unicorns. In fact, yesterday (Thursday), I could not pull myself out of a day-long pit caused by pain and discomfort, namely the inability to breathe and a bad headache right in between my eyes.

Anyone would get down from pain like that, I suppose. But my pain wasn’t the true source of my depression. It was the one-two punches of guilt and shame that came with my inability to function that knocked me out.

Simply put, guilt is the negative feeling associated with acting in a certain way contrary to your personal principles. On Thursday, I failed to make it to work. Accordingly, I felt guilt for not having been the faithful and dependable employee that my supervisor and co-workers (hopefully still) expect me to be. “Well,” you might say. “Why didn’t you just go to work? You would have avoided all that guilt if you’d just gone and done your work!”

True, sure. Guilt is a powerful motivator to do better, to improve, to actually act correctly. But you’re missing the second reason for my depression: shame.

Shame isn’t feeling sadness and fear due to your actions or choices. It’s feeling sadness and fear because of who you are, resultant of a poor evaluation of self. As this article by Jay Boll for Esperanza entitled “Shame: The Other Emotion in Depression and Anxiety
describes, “Shame is sometimes confused with guilt. But there’s an important difference.  Guilt arises from a negative evaluation of one’s behavior, while shame arises from a negative evaluation of one’s self. Guilt is the feeling of doing wrong, while shame is the feeling of being wrong.  As such, guilt can be a powerful motivator to change one’s behavior for the better. Shame can have the opposite effect, making a person feel that change is hopeless because the problem is one’s self.  This is what makes shame such a toxic emotion.”

Perhaps to my detriment, guilt is the lesser of the two evils, and the one feeling that gets ignored. I wouldn’t make the choices I do otherwise. I feel ashamed of the person I am, and so it is my innate reaction to any negative emotions to withdraw and become insular. From that shame comes the guilt of not having done what I promised to do, and it spirals in on itself until I’m pretty much not able to do anything at all.

“Victims of trauma and abuse are especially susceptible to toxic shame,” Boll continues. “But it does not take an abusive childhood or severe misfortune to experience dysfunctional levels of this emotion. More often, it results from shaming messages we receive from parents, teachers, other authorities, and peers that we internalize and tell ourselves over-and-over.”

Believe me, I have a lot of negative shaming messages in my brain that it just relishes to replay again and again, some from my mission, some from work, and some from school. I have many negative interactions with teachers, for example, that make me internally shy away from classroom settings, and make me hesitate to raise my hand or ask for assistance. It’s why I’ve done so poorly in classes and why the upcoming semester (that starts Monday) fills me with such dread, even though I’m only taking one class.

Know why I hate talking about politics so much? Shame. Know why I have such difficulties talking about religion with other people who aren’t my immediate family? Shame. Know why I’ve quit or lost work opportunities, preferring to be caught dead than be seen losing control of my emotions? Shame. Know why I haven’t been on a date in over ten years? Shame. Know why I continually fail to show up to church a decade after coming home early from serving my mission? It’s shame. Shame for failing to become the strong and independent individual I had half a mind to become after I graduated high school. I feel shame for not being stronger than my bipolar depression without chemical assistance, shame for not being more outgoing in my personal life, shame for liking video games and daring to believe myself a writer or game designer. I feel shame for being politically open-minded but innately conservative, I feel shame for being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, and I feel shame for all these powerful emotions of sadness, anger, and fear that I’ve been told I’m not supposed to feel as a man. I even feel shame for suffering from things I have no control over, like sinus infections, colds, and possibly even sleep apnea (this is being investigated at the moment).

But you know something? While there are many different people I can blame for the many unpleasant memories that flood my mind every time depression returns, I know my enemy isn’t external. It’s internal. It’s the shame that I don’t know how to process. It’s the ideal, impossible, perfected “me” that I’ve envisioned that keeps the real me from finding happiness in the moment. It’s taken me fifteen or so years to understand where my anger and sadness comes from, and it’s nearly impossible for me to communicate this clearly enough to be understood. I can’t even describe these things to my parents without receiving looks of confusion and concern.

I wish shame were some small thing to step over. But it’s not.

The story in the article about Mr. Boll being called “Twinkle Toes Boll” by his teacher in sixth grade despite the fact that he had been born with a clubfoot is intensely fitting with my experience. But in the deepest recesses of my reluctant heart, I know that the people who have shouted me down might have reconsidered their critical tone had they known me and my experiences. But, of course, this is impossible. Miscommunication and misunderstanding are the name of the game in this wonderful world of ours, and unless you knew me, you wouldn’t know I have moderately functional bipolar depression. No, I imagine you’d just see an undermotivated, unimpressive, and overweight male Mormon college student with a patchy beard.

That’s all I imagine my teachers and “friends” saw, too.

Speaking of his realization that he had overcome both his physical weakness and the bullying he experienced, Boll continues, “Both discoveries are instances of cognitive restructuring. In the first, I reframed my experience of shame into pride by having the compassion for myself that the ‘shamer’ never showed me.  In the second, I devalued the shamer by seeing him through other people’s eyes as the bully he really was. The sad truth is that many bullies are also driven by toxic shame, which they disavow by projecting onto others.”

This is difficult for me, since I have neither avenue of reframing available to me. I have neither friends suffering with me to let me know I’m functioning any better than anyone else with Bipolar Type-2, and I don’t have the fortune of knowing that my bullying experiences were like anyone else’s. I’ve never had a therapist ask me, “How are you able to get to work at all with what you’re experiencing?” Just once I’d like someone to acknowledge how hard I try to manage everything going on in my life, but of course no one really knows but me, so what’s the point?

How do I reframe my experiences to help me feel better about my place in life? And do I truly have to reframe every single memory that arises in my head to finally find peace?

Honestly, that sounds impossible. I suppose I’m going to have to go back to a therapist to work through this, because it’s affecting my everyday life. And that means time and money, two things I have just NO shortage of (#sarcasm).

Sorry for a hopeless extra blog today. Just a lot of sadness and frustration in my life at the moment that I don’t know how to process. Writing it out helps. Sort of.

My 100+ Hour Tale – Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn

Final-Fantasy-XIV-per-Mac-icon-900

On Tuesday, I finished the main story quests of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (I got the end credits and everything), and now I feel that the game can truly begin with the expansions of Heavensward and Stormblood. But before I continue, I wanted to condense my thoughts about the base game as much as I can and share what I think works in this MMORPG and as well as what things I’ve seen that have been done better in comparable titles.

Here is my Warrior of Light, Jerik Noa:

Jerik.jpg

Sing, O sing, ye Candidus Fellows, unto the pure Light of Dawnbreak!

And yes, with the conclusion of the final story quest, I just received another bottle of Fantasia, so I might be changing into a female character soon. They just seem to have so many cooler fashions and styles available, besides the fact that I usually prefer to play female characters (I’ll have to write an article about my thoughts of gender in video games, especially in games where you customize your character down to the freckles on their cheeks; although, come to think of it, that approaches the unassailable gates of feminism and political discourse, and we all know how prepared I am for those topics). I’m thinking a Mi’qote, as that was the first race I played as when I first picked the game up, although the thought of playing a hardass Dark Knight Lalafell is hilariously intriguing. I would be playing a nightmare-fueled spikey-armor clad toddler with a three foot soul-sucking blade that just wants a hug.

Is that racist? That seems racist. Can you be racist against fictional fantasy races? I mean, it’s no better than my character now: whenever I change job classes to weaver or goldsmith, I suddenly become Eorzea’s most frightening butler, complete with cummerbund and necktie. Mi’qote just seems like the right middle road between plushy-adorable and mildly-threatening.

 

darkkn

On the left: Warrior of Light. On the right: adorable Papalymo. Would you believe the one on the right is arguably more dangerous?

So, how was the ending? Without spoilers, of course, I can say that it was… unexpected. Having gone into this MMO aware of some of the story elements, I knew a few different things had to happen, and a few things still need to happen. I just wasn’t sure how it would all pan out. Unaware of what parts of the story fall into place between A Realm Reborn, Heavensward, and Stormblood, I realize that I still have a ton of content to get through, not to mention taking to time to master all of the other classes and trades.

Here’s my list of good versus bad (with some neutral sprinkled in) from what I’ve played so far in Final Fantasy XIV:

Positive: Changing Classes Made Easy

I started this particular playthough as a gladiator, although I quickly realized that starting the game off as a tank is just asking for trouble in multiplayer dungeons and raids. If you aren’t familiar with a run and you tank for the first time, you’ll probably tick off your teammates. Fortunately, FF XIV makes it super easy to change classes and level them up, even going so far as to make the process of leveling faster for those who already have a high level in another combat class. I hadn’t been an archer before, so I chose to continue my game as an arrow-slinger and eventually as a Bard.

I’m really looking forward to playing as a machinist, as machinists have royally screwed me over in PvP with their pushing and pulling abilities, and I would like to experience being on the other side of the coin. But, then again, tanks are in short supply nowadays, and dark knight looks awesome. Either way, I’ll get to it all eventually.

file_68271_jobs

Astrologian, too. Heart of the Cards, baby.

Negative: Vesper Bay

Why. The heck. Does Vesper Bay. Not. Have. A FAST-TRAVEL OPTION.

I would say this is a simple complaint, but bear with me, it’s more complicated than just missing an important waypoint. This has more to do with a lack of balance and a clear insistence on wasting my time and resources than it does with ease of travel. Considering you come back to this place repeatedly in A Realm Reborn makes this a travesty in more ways than one.

First, there are two ways to get to Vesper Bay. The first is by fast-traveling to Horizon and hoofing it all the way across the map of Western Thanalan to get there. Even on chocobo-back, this is an annoying journey to have to repeat again and again. I consider this the ‘unintended’ slow way, but the alternate route is no better. The other way to Vesper Bay is by boarding a boat from Limsa Lominsa (by talking to an attendant next to the Arcanist’s Guild). This necessitates teleporting to Limsa Lominsa, teleporting to the Arcanist’s Guild, then taking the boat. Unless you want to spend a lot of money teleporting to Limsa Lominsa again and again during the story missions, then expect to set your home marker to Lominsa.

But with your home marker on Limsa Lominsa, what’s the use of being in any other Grand Company than the Maelstrom? You’re going to spend a lot of money teleporting to Gridania and Ul’dah if you join the Twin Adders or the Flames, since acquiring and spending guild seals with your Company is a good way to keep your character’s gear up-to-date, not to mention keeping your Barracks active once you reach that point.

ffxiv_comic__what_s_this_for_then__by_bchart-d757f3b

I’d rather not, Minfilia, thanks.

Once you’re done with the story missions, I imagine (or desperately hope) you won’t have to travel to the Waking Sands as often, and you can set your home point elsewhere. But it really bothers me when games make important oft-visited locations difficult to get to. Even search “vesper bay ffxiv” in Google, and the third entry is: “How do you get to Vesper Bay”. When you’ve made it that inconvenient and confusing to repeatedly return to a story-critical location, you’ve either accidentally screwed up as a developer or you’ve done it intentionally. As the game has been out for almost five years now, I’m thinking the latter.

Related Negative: Fast Travel Costs

Just a short point: fast travel is insultingly expensive. I’ve never played an MMO with such high costs of travel. And since your home point is Limsa Lominsa, a landmass away from Gridania and Ul’dah? You’ll be paying out the nose every time your journey takes you hither and yon.

Positive-ish: Oh, the Joys of Resource Gathering

Remember when I talked about fishing in Ocarina of Time and Dark Cloud 2? Well, strap on your gathering pants and get ready to make some money, honey! Whether it’s steel, alumen, mythril, electrum, red coral, fleece, or boar leather, there’s goods to procure from your local environment. I’m not overly fond of the resource node system, especially with how difficult it can be to obtain necessary materials like elemental shards. I understand how high-quality materials work, and I like that part of the system; it’s a thrill to hit those HQ nods and hear the sharp bang of the sledgehammer or the golden glint of the catch on your line. But in The Elder Scrolls Online, for instance, you’ll obtain about three to five resources per node in a single instance and only have your crafting skills to worry about. In FF XIV, the craft and the gathering are separate, and the gathering is more literal, piece by piece.

c7x1nkyvuaageh6

Until you rage-quit from worse-than-XCOM accuracy percentages. What do you mean, I missed three times in a row with 92%?!

Oh, and if you don’t upkeep your gear with your current level, you’re going to find gathering a waste of time. Instead, worry about leveling up with fieldcraft leves as soon as you can, then go back and get the materials you need.

Related Negative: Inventory Space

I don’t have housing yet. All my money has been spent fast-traveling and getting stupid lightning and wind shards for crafting. So my inventory is full, my chocobo’s pack is full, and I’ll soon be turning to my retainers to hold mats. You can’t sell anything in this game. Almost everything has a crafting purpose, no matter how obscure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chucked something to free up space just to have to go grovelling back to the Market Board to buy more later on.

Everything about the inventory is so dang inconvenient. Except the ‘Sort’ key, that I like. Let me have a material’s sack like The Elder Scrolls Online, realism be damned!

dwbedzixcaepp2m

I have to have all these coeurl skins and pinches of mythril sand and fishing bait and walnut logs and…

Negative: The Overabundance of Story-Critical Dungeons and Trials

I’m imagining this is how it went.

One thing the developers of Star Wars: The Old Republic realized as the game was getting longer in the tooth was that its emphasis on story was more important than multiplayer gameplay. That isn’t to say The Old Republic had lackluster gameplay; far from it. They realized that they had so much content gated behind dungeons and trials that most players passed it by on their way through the main story missions for each class. Not everyone who plays MMORPGs wants to do so with friends. So they chose the RPG over the MMO and rebuilt their dungeons so players could single-handedly go through 4-man dungeons by themselves (with help from a tanky battledroid and their NPC companions).

And it doesn’t matter what class you choose to be, either. A tank can DPS, and healer can tank, and DPS can… well, DPS more.

ctdv_tzveaee0k9

Violence solves ALL the problems!

Final Fantasy XIV went the completely opposite direction. Not only are their 4-man dungeons not optional, there is no way for players to accomplish them by themselves. Dungeons are strictly one-tank, one-healer, two-DPS affairs that break down if any player doesn’t do their part with relative skill. I’m making this sound more dramatically bad than it is, of course, but you all know how I feel about multiplayer; last night I was the only one in the group who hadn’t run the 8-man final dungeon, I fell behind pretty dramatically at one point, and all the other players talked about while the unskippable cutscenes were playing was Japanese porn and masterbation. I won’t question their ability to kick Ultima Weapon in the junk, but I’d rather not hear about what they plan to do with theirs.

“You’ll be doing this dungeon a lot,” they said when I fell behind.

Uh-huh. Like hell I will.

*sigh*

I probably will.

toxic

Despite their vulgarity, my fellow players in that 8-man dungeon were very nice about me getting behind since it didn’t impede their progress. If it had… I would have had a worse experience.

Positive: Gameplay. Like, All the Gameplay

Everything I wrote above this would probably make you think I dislike Final Fantasy XIV. But that isn’t true; I’m 250 hours in, and I’ve probably got that much to give and more with the fun I’ve had so far. I’m in a good Free Company that answers questions (and at least doesn’t kick me out). I’ve nailed down being a level 55 Bard, and I’m excited to see where the storyline goes as I proceed into Heavensward.

It’s a joy to fight, especially when you line up all of your attacks appropriately (and with my mechanical keyboard, it sounds good too). Maximizing my DEEPS (or DPS, damage-per-second) is awesome, and I feel like I’m in a good spot.

Just as long as I can keep multiplayer at arm’s length. Or find a good group of friends to connect with, which is unlikely considering I’m one of the few people I know that cares for a subscription MMO and Final Fantasy and has an appropriate system that can play it. In other words, yes, I anticipate my journey in Eorzea will end due to repetition, multiplayer negativity, and poor time-wasting design decisions. But it won’t be for a while.

At least until Fallout 76 appears. Or I buckle down and actually write more for Alyssum. Type-type-type-type.

A Realm Reborn Review: 8.5/10

Backstage Tales – The Theme

mip05jq

No! Don’t kill the tunes!

Over the weekend, Bethesda released the theme music for Fallout 76. Have a listen:

It sounds like Fallout 76 is really taking us to the frontier of a newly-born post-apocalyptic wasteland. In fact, I hear echoes of the irradiated swamps of Fallout 3 in the beginning only for the theme to take on the feeling of an active rushing river. I feel like Fallout 76’s theme is about taking on a whole new life, literally and figuratively.

At the same time, take a listen to the theme of Fallout 4:

Where Fallout 4 echoes the story of loss and determination to rebuild the city of Boston hundreds of years after the bombs have dropped, the theme for Fallout 76 tells a very different story that reflects the wilderness of West Virginia and a world that has yet to recover from the worst effects of the Great War. Where the Sole Survivor has lost everything and ventures forth from Vault 111 to recover his/her son, the Vault Dwellers of Vault 76 have nothing to lose and everything to gain from exploring the wasteland. Both of these theme songs from composer Inon Zur are incredible, and both made me (or is currently making me) very excited to play these games. When the players of your game don’t want to press start on the title screen right away because the theme music is so good, you know you’ve hired the right composer.

In my opinion, the right tone of music can take even a mediocre game and make it great, and it can make a great game completely unforgettable. I love epic, sweeping music that has a full orchestral feel: give me dulcimer bells, legions of violins, an off-beat, and piano themes that will stick in my head like pudding and remind me what game I’m playing every few minutes.

(I know my family don’t quite understand my music tastes, but then again, neither do I; I love everything from Linkin Park’s Leave Out All the Rest to They Might Be Giant’s You’re On Fire to Gustav Holst’s Jupiter, the Bringer of JollityHow are those related? No idea. But I love them all the same. “It just works.”)

Here’s one piece by Jeremy Soule that I played over and over and over again when I was in junior high and high school. It’s not a theme song, per se, but it hit me like one. Playing these types of music is super calming for me and helps me focus on my writing. I wrote so many stories to this song:

(In fact, I wonder if my listening to music on repeat gives weight to my ‘overstimulation’ theory; I’ll listen certain songs right into the ground if they help clear my thoughts. Strange as it sounds, I’ve dedicated a lot of playtime in Minecraft to Karl Jenkins’ Symphonic Adiemus and the band Mew’s Eggs Are Funny albums. But anyway.)

If Jeremy Soule sounds familiar, it’s because he’s one of my favorite composers, and (this isn’t weird, but it sounds weird) I wake up to his brillance every morning:

It’s just beautiful music and actually relaxing to wake up to every morning. (Is it a backhanded compliment to say that your music is better to wake up to than a shrill beeping alarm? Still, it’s very true, and I’m grateful for it.) Every time I hear this music play when wandering the streets of Whiterun in Skyrim, it makes me wish the city were larger so I could take more time exploring and listening in peace. It’s the perfect peaceful theme for a Nord city that sits under the crisp chill of twin evening moons.

Here’s a theme that might make you wonder about me even more:

It’s like Tim Burton, a pile of black play-doh, and a thirty-person choir group got together and composed a soundtrack! Composer Kyle Gabler is awesome, and it makes me want to listen to the soundtrack of every Tomorrow Corporation game. Likewise, this one gets me every time:

It’s like Christmas came early, except there’s the very real chance that you’ll freeze to death if you don’t burn everything that’s precious to you right now for warmth! If you don’t know, that’s the premise of the game. It has a very ambiguous but memorable ending, and the theme goes right along with it.

Oh, and this one, the first video game song to win a Grammy:

So solid. It was recently sung by the Angel City Chorale on America’s Got Talent, and they were actually really impressive. It was also performed by Alex Boyé and the BYU Men’s Chorus and Philharmonic, which is just fun for this LDS gamer.

(To see the look on the face of the judges if you told them the song came from a video game would be very entertaining; in fact, one of the comments under the Angel City Chorale video goes like this: “My mum once asked me why I like video games so much, and I said one of the main things for me, is the music in a game. She told me she didn’t think video games had epic music, so I showed her this. I’m not saying she became a nerdy gamer but I changed her mind on that one…. 😛 “).

And lastly, I only need to hear this simple melody to get excited for Disney and Square all over again:

Yes, the extended edition. Of course, the extended edition. A melody of such simpler times. As one of the comments in this video says, the version of Dearly Beloved that will come with Kingdom Hearts 3 is going to break the hearts of all the players out there (as will the plot of the game, I imagine, put we’ll get there in January).

Those are just some of my favorite video game themes that made me an instant fan. What are others that stir your soul and make you wish you could forget the game and experience it new all over again?


EDIT: How could I forget Final Fantasy XIV?! The major themes of Stormblood are absolutely magnificent, topping off with this fight (spoilers, I suppose):

But man, I love FF XIV’s music. Just so much. I could go on.

Mental Chains – Way Too Much At Once

shutterstock_288125777

Take typical me; with the right medications under my belt, I can totally handle life.

Now give me a headache, a really dull sinus headache between the eyes; okay, not liking this.

Now make me wear a shirt that’s a bit too snug and itchy around the collar, and pants that constrict places that shouldn’t be constricted; I’m grumbling now.

Give me my stupid-looking beard and mustache that I don’t know how to trim that tickles in all the wrong ways; irritating.

Now raise the temperature to 92 F or above; nope, no way.

Add in a canker sore or some other form of recurring pain just for fun; now you’re destroying me.

Now put me in a crowded environment where the slightest noise will generate unwanted attention; absolutely not, get me out of here immediately.

Am I completely mental? Have I gone insane for wanting to get away from these circumstances as fast as humanly possible?

what-is-anxiety

I would rather combat one huge problem than a thousand small problems. But what happens when the thousand small problems become huge?

Let me put it this way: I do not take being uncomfortable very well. So much so that I doubt I could have lived in any other period in history and been a successful and productive member of society. I come from pioneer ancestors, many of whom spent months travelling on foot in burning hot and freezing cold temperatures across the plains to live in Utah and Idaho. Could I have endured through all of that like they did? I’m fairly certain the answer is plain as the plains they journeyed over.

If there was one thing that I wish I could change more than anything, it would be my tolerance for uncomfortability. I wish I could pick myself up by my bootstraps (which is physically impossible; does that make the phrase inherently sarcastic?) and do everything that needed to be done despite all of my internal and external disturbances.

Am I the only one who can’t manage life when so many things go wrong at once? Am I really the only person in existence who has had a panic attack at work or in a public place because there was simply too much emotional and physical stimuli occurring at once? Am I unique in running away from and avoiding these types of situations?

$

It’s a bit like that on the inside, yeah.

More importantly, am I a wuss for being this way? I call myself a wuss and my family has called me a wuss for years. By the way I react when these situations occur, I feel like this borders upon obsession-compulsion. Or, perhaps the opposite of it. For example, I don’t like exercise because when I sweat, I sweat directly from my face and forehead, which creates waves of unwanted stimulation and interference having to repeatedly wipe it away. All ability to focus vanishes, and I quickly work myself into tears or rage. In fact, if you enjoy my company at all, there better be climate control somewhere nearby, or you may learn to resent me.

Oh my gosh, I just found this. Whether it’s clinically accurate or not, this is exactly the way I’m feeling almost every day. It’s 100% this. It’s complete over-stimulation. The first article goes on to say that hyper-sensitivity can lead to positive emotions, and I do agree that can happen (such as when I got this blog going again with help from my friend Effexor). But more often than not, it’s over-stimulation that’s getting in my damn way.

I’ve often wondered if I’m really male because real men don’t have these kinds of intense emotions about anything. Right? Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Is this that “toxic masculinity” business they’re always talking about? But then I know of so many women in my life that fight through much worse than I do. Despite petty (or not-so-petty) sicknesses and uncomfortable social situations, they thrive where I cannot.

It’s this, way more than my bipolar depression, that I feel shame for having. It’s this undiagnosable problem that I can’t overcome. It’s almost never anyone else’s fault that I fail something. I always choose not to show up. I’ve failed to show up to school because of the long, uncomfortable walk to the classroom, not to mention the crowds of unfamiliar faces and fear of raising my hand. I haven’t gone to church in a very long time for similar reasons. I don’t exercise because the constant pain and sweat drive me insane faster than Chinese water torture. And I miss work because sinus infections and driving in a car without AC do not make for a pleasant combination. All of these factors combined drive me up the wall. If you met me IRL and I’ve ever seemed awkward and uncomfortable, just know that there are probably a myriad of things going on that have overloaded my brain and short-circuited my social synapses.

chinese-water-torture

Every. Single. Day. Every. Little. Thing.

In the end, it’s just excuse after excuse from me. But I don’t mean to make excuses. I just don’t know how to handle what I’m experiencing, much less try to communicate what the problem is to someone else (I guess that’s what I’m trying to do with this blog). Could my medicine be making this worse? Possibly. Probably not, though, since this has been an issue for many years prior to me taking them.

*sigh*

I’m so tired. Tired of being like this. Call me a hypochondriac (“You’re a hypochondriac,” thank you) but I have felt for a long time that there is something intrinsically wrong with me. Several things, apparently, since this is entirely separate from the depression. I have always been terrible in social situations (or, in the least, I have been hypercritical of myself during social situations). When my mind detects a disturbance, be it an itch, an unpleasant smell, pain (either sharp or dull), temperature too high or too low, sweat, or even a particle of dust resting on the corner of my flippin’ glasses, I have to correct the problem immediately. Put multiple issues in front of me at the same time, and my processor is likely to fry, leaving few resources available for things like meaningful conversation or accurate work.

I once had a supervisor who never seemed to clean her glasses, and it drove me up the wall every time I talked with her — it was never her I talked to, it was always the particles of dust on her glasses that my eyes would focus on. I would think, “How could she possibly live with her glasses in that condition!” And she would have to repeat her directions multiple times because I wouldn’t be able to focus on what she was saying. In the end, I don’t think she liked me very much.

dirty_glasses

A bit like that, yeah. In fact, a whole lot like that.

So what do I do about this?

I have no clue. It’s not like practicing “being uncomfortable” is going to get me anywhere. I’m stuck in a rut, summertime makes things worse, and I have a feeling that even writing this down is going to get me in trouble with someone someday. But I have to get it out there or else I’m never going to get help with this. Writing is the only way I know how to communicate anymore.

And I can’t just “handle it”. I can’t just “do it”. There has to be some mental exercise I can do, some way to change my thought process to help me accept stimuli in a more productive way. There has to be a better answer than just “get over it”, because I’ve been in this rut for many years now, and I think it’s a little bit bigger than a speed bump at this point.

How do I overcome hypersensitivity and overstimulation?

Backstage Tales – My Current Games

I didn’t mean to, but I think I used all of my powers of literation on Thursday’s blog; my writing powers were spent. I generally avoid two things: politics and philosophy. If I use my brainythinks too much on weightyhuge fingertypes, my uplander braincase gets clogged up with thick gooeythoughts. Then I no can write good next time.

So, instead of hefty theoretical musings about game design, how about I share with you what I’ve been playing recently?

Firstly, which should be obvious by my goblinspeak (which is incredibly fun to write, by the way):

Final Fantasy XIV

Here is my character Jerik Noa:

Jerik

I feel so strong, even though I’m not!

If you saw my earlier blog and thought to yourself: “Weren’t you playing a Mi’qote a minute ago?” Well, you’d be right. I decided to use my Fantasia to turn into an Xaela Au Ra, and I officially look like a blue-eyed Daedra out of the Elder Scrolls. I’m suddenly two heads taller than everyone else, and my chocobo’s size doubled, taking fewer and much longer strides. When I change classes to weaver or goldsmith, I become the world’s most terrifying butler. It’s awesome. I’m in no way a maximized level 50 bard, either, as my jewelry needs to be updated, and my crafting classes have a lot of leveling to go to create that kind of gear.

I finally got my bard up to level 50 and got the full Birdliege set of PvP armor, and… It certainly doesn’t help my win percentage. My long-distance-ness is never long-distance enough. But I’m having fun regardless! I’m actually impressed at how active PvP matches and instances are in FF XIV; they’re all but dead in The Old Republic. And with expert deliveries to the Grand Companies, you never have to worry about getting “junk” equipment from lower-level instances. Sure, they may be of lesser value, but the developers of FF XIV seemed really determined to make everything useful at least in some way to higher level characters.

Also, this is hilarious:

Such a fun game, and a really positive community. As time goes on, I’m continually impressed by the quality of players, both in skill and desire to help new players. While you’ll always get the occasional negative guy who quits the group when the instance isn’t run to his liking, I’ve found that more often than not, players of FF XIV are very accommodating and cool when compared to other MMOs. We’ll see if that holds true with late-game content.

Minecraft

This is me:

giphy

Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.

…and getting nothing in return. A whole lotta iron, and no diamonds. That, and the mob farm that I just built got hit by a creeper and broke a lot of the redstone machinery, so I get to sit down and rewatch the tutorial I followed just to see that everything is put back together again.

Minecraft is one of the only games I know that requires you to make three or four backups of essential gear and equipment if you’re going to want to keep playing. I finally managed to create the perfect pickaxe with Fortune III, and swam underwater to go searching for diamonds in a ravine close by. All was going well (I HAD 40 DIAMONDS AT ONE POINT) until I got too close to an underwater cave that wasn’t filled with water (because screw Minecraft’s water physics). Whereupon a creeper proceeds to blow me up, despite being fully-armored and fully-healed, and my diamonds are gently floated into lava where they burn up and disappear.

Yes, the server I’m on is on Hard difficulty. Not my regular cup of tea. But you’d think a bit of challenge would be fun once you’ve gotten yourself established.

No. It’s just pain. So, instead of exploring and adventuring, I’m planning on going back into my mines and trudging through miles of stone so I might find those precious diamonds and possibly have a chance at survival the next time a creeper decides to hug me.

f056_creeper_plush

This is not cute. This is the plush equivalent of a guillotine.

No Man’s Sky

I’m not spending nearly as much time with No Man’s Sky as I originally wanted to. It’s not that the game isn’t fun, it’s just that I’ve forgotten how grindy the game was and still is. Sure, the game is a gorgeous screenshot simulator (with some screenshots I’ve seen looking like they’ve been digitally created for a paperback sci-fi novel), but I’m finding actually going through the main story missions a bit repetitive and mind-numbing. Exploration is entertaining to a point, but if I have to endure sitting in a cave waiting for a radioactive storm to pass over me again, I might go a bit crazy.

c-bahjyszbzccvkdfihjturvf4y2w6kyam4wn7anc0i

NYEHHH!!

I’ve tried to get into Creative mode, but it just physically hurts me to have everything available for base building. If I don’t build it legitimately in survival or normal mode, have I built it at all?

Ha! I should ask Minecraft the same question.


So that’s what I’ve been getting into lately. I’m still very excited for further news and gameplay of Fallout 76 at QuakeCon in three days, so that should be fun to see. Still, having plunged a bit deeper into the multiplayer swimming pool, I’m more hesitant than ever to see how multiplayer will change Fallout as a whole.

Whether we’ll see anything about it by this Thursday, I’m not sure. But I will want to discuss it in a future blog, so stay tuned!

In Response – The Irreversible Choice

This blog is in response to Irreversible Events on Gamasutra by Bart Stewart.


point-no-return-gr-stencil-print-grunge-white-brick-wall-specially-designed-font-used-82140325

Accepting as fact that fate does not exist (which is a huge assumption to make, but bear with me), I would wager that the entirety of the human condition rests upon the power of agency given to every human being. This may seem overly philosophical to video games, but stick with me.

One thing that strikes me as a harsh and terrible truth about the world is that while it seems that our ability to choose appears to be nearly infinite, there are aspects of life that limit what we can and cannot do. Money, social status, relationships with certain people, and education level can determine where we end up in life. Skin color, gender, and mental or physical health are all hurdles to personal choice. Government and corporate power structures, the rule of law, and even the very laws of the universe dictate to us the decisions we can make for ourselves and others.

At the same time, this terrible truth is a blessing when applied correctly. Even with the “right” connections and resources, turns out it’s still pretty difficult to get away with murder, theft, and infidelity unless you’ve had some practice (in fact, it’s a pretty big blessing that society as a whole acknowledges at least in some way that those three things are pretty rotten). People overcome their apparent restrictions in surprising ways: not a day goes by without seeing a post on Facebook of a first-generation college graduate getting their diploma or a soldier whose limb was torn off in combat finding a greater standard of living through the latest generation of prosthetics. The same laws that govern the destructive power of the atomic bomb have provided power to hundreds of thousands of people for decades. It lies only for us to choose to use our power, time, and resources towards a particular end. The consequences can be beneficial for many or for few, disastrous for many or for few, or be completely unexpected: even nothing happening can be a legitimate result of choice. Consequence follows choice, whether the effects are immediate or not. What may seem a sudden event often isn’t felt for years, even centuries, to come.

So, with the philosophy out of the way, why is choice so important in video games, whether you realize it or not?

Well, simply put, when the crumbling bridge falls or the unlockable door slams shut, people get pissed when they realize they can’t ever make those choices again!

246215252013212

So much anger. Thankfully, most RPGs are single-player so the rage is contained. Until they complain on Steam forums and Reddit.

Continuing on my theme of ‘video games represent an ever-perfecting medium of pure escapism’, it only stands to reason that people get tired of being restricted day in and day out. The circumstances of our lives offer us options, and sure, we make a veritable torrent of choices every single day, but most of them decidedly non-life-threatening and unimportant. Many of them are incredibly boring or even repulsive. Let’s be honest: we make many of the same choices again and again. Why? Because of taste, ease, comfort, or even decision fatigue. Take me for instance: I choose to drink the same two drinks over and over with very little variation (Citrus Energy Sobe and Slim Fast) because I’ve grown accustomed to the taste and effects of both (although I don’t advise drinking both at the same time). Some people (like Mark Zuckerberg) wear the same clothes day in and day out so they don’t have to make a decision about fashion. Some people end up forming relationships with the same person or type of personality because they’ve grown accustomed to it (for better or for worse).

Role-playing games, or at least the good ones, allow you to step into the skin of another being and make decisions that you yourself would never have the opportunity to make unless you were, in fact, the leader of a paramilitary mercenary organization, the ex-head of security at Sarif Industries, the last dragonborn, or even a mute child with spiky hair and a time-traveling ship. These individuals, through hardship or happenstance, somehow found themselves in the middle of world-shaking circumstances, and their video games enables you, the player, to make the decisions regarding how these characters would survive or even thrive in life-threatening situations. In most games, you can make the choice to clothe your character in different armors, use different items like potions or food to boost their abilities, read books detailing the lore of the world, and fight fantastical monsters that real life does not offer.

deusex3

He never asked for this. But gamers do!

When these characters encounter choices that suddenly and severely restrict their comparatively god-like abilities, it becomes easy for the player to say, “Well, why don’t they do X instead?” And it is upon the shoulders of the game developer to explain to the player why these options are no longer available to them. I’ll give you some examples.

First, something simple:

Why can’t Mario walk backwards in Super Mario Bros.? That really bugged me as a kid. Did it bother anyone else? If you miss a mushroom or it disappears behind you off-screen, you might as well walk off a cliff, because you ain’t never getting that back. Is Mario afraid to look backwards, scared of what he might find in his past? Or was it just an engine limitation? Well, whatever it was, Mario got over it in later games.

I would call this a mechanical limitation of choice, not a technical limitation of the Nintendo system itself but of the game’s design (whether it was or wasn’t). To use Stewart’s example, this is the collapsed bridge that you can never cross again unless you restart the game from the beginning. Telltale Games centrally structures their games around this limitation, as the major choices you make have irreversible consequences (even minor choices can affect whether the story even continues). Many of these choices are even timed, giving the player no time to think about the decision they’re about to make. Thus, you could actually consider Stewart’s first example as split into two parts: the mechanical limitation of choice (the crumbling bridge) and the plot limitation of choice (the story reason for crossing the bridge).

walking-dead-season-1

I’m not sure if this is a spoiler or not. If it is, please let me know.

A prime example of this would be choosing a major faction in the main questline of Fallout 4. If you believe a synth deserves freedom like any human, the Railroad is your faction. If you believe that synths are simply tools that are built to serve humanity, join the Institute. If you believe that synths are weapons that could spell the future doom of mankind, there’s always the Brotherhood of Steel. And if you believe that improving and defending all peace-loving human-looking life in the Commonwealth is more important than all this petty synth business, the Minutemen need a new general. There is a way for only the Institute to be destroyed, and for a while, it seemed like this pathway wasn’t intended by Bethesda – either the Institute destroys the Railroad and the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood destroys the Institute and the Railroad, or the Railroad destroys the Institute and the Brotherhood. Somehow, when the Minutemen lead the charge against the Institute, the Railroad and the Brotherhood no longer have a reason to clash. If you want to experience the whole of Fallout 4, prepare to play 4 different characters and then some with the Nuka-World DLC (choosing to become a raider boss or not).

Also, ever run into an invisible wall or boundary that brings you unwillingly back to a certain point? The edge of the Great Ocean in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask comes to mind. Whether they’re necessary (such as a world border) or not (like certain dumb ones in Fallout: New Vegas), these barriers limit where you can go and how fast you can get there.

The next example Stewart mentions seems to be the limitation of choice using in-game items. To use Final Fantasy as an example, you never quite know how many megalixirs you’re going to be granted, causing the player anxiety over using them now or for a tougher challenge later on. Did you know that, technically speaking, there are non-renewable resources in the nearly infinite world of Minecraft? Anyway, this isn’t quite what Stewart is solely referring to; it’s a limitation of overall resources available to the player, not just of items, but of abilities and stats that makes your player unique.

91nz5oxfneqz

“But I’ll run out eventually!” you cry, with tears streaming down your face. Siiimple and Cleeeean is the waaay that you’re maaaaking me feeeel toniiiiight…

Ever play the Bioshock series? Then you’re probably familiar with the Little Sisters, the genetically-modified little girls that accompany the iron-suited Big Daddies in the city of Rapture. Choosing to sacrifice them for their ADAM or saving them and receiving a lesser reward for a better game ending is a perfect example of a game designed around resource limitations. The game actually becomes more challenging if you choose to be heroic, and you get the bad ending if you choose to sacrifice even one Little Sister in a moment of desperation.

A good example of a limitation of ability would be the conversation cutscenes that occur in Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mankind Divided. A lot of the simplest pathways are restricted to those that have the sharpest tongue. If you don’t have the social enhancer and upgrades related to charisma, you’ll find yourself blundering through conversations and end up with much fewer options. Worse, you can fail even if you have these upgrades like I often did, restricting yourself even more when stealth or direct combat remain the only avenues of progress. Further, if you do prefer the stealth approach over direct violence or persuasion, you’ll often miss many items and upgrades that would be available to you otherwise. In my first sneak-only playthrough of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I played the entire game passively without ever knowing how to use a P.E.P.S. gun, as the ammo was very rare and heavily guarded. And that’s all besides the fact that bosses were violence-only affairs before Eidos patched them with non-violent solutions.

A special example of resource restriction that comes to mind is when a temporary character comes into your party in an RPG that has surprisingly buffed stats and abilities compared to your regular team members. These characters often leave your party just as quickly as they arrive unless progress is stalled in some way or the player outright cheats to keep them available. Examples include Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VII, Edea and Seifer in Final Fantasy VIII, Beatrix in Final Fantasy IX, Seymour in Final Fantasy X, Larsa and Reddas in Final Fantasy XII… Do you sense a trend? While these team members are in your party, you can pretty much wipe the floor with enemies, and can often demonstrate the kind of potential your characters will achieve by the end game. You’ll suddenly feel very naked when they have to say goodbye.

One notable inversion to this that I can think of is Cidolfus Orlandeau from Final Fantasy Tactics. He’s incredibly powerful, and once devoted to your cause, will never leave your side. Unless you force him away. But why would you? His nickname (and his theme music) is ‘Thunder God Cid’!

thunder_god_cid_by_morbidmic-d7x3ud4

SUCK ON EXCALIBUR, MALBORO! Art by Morbidmic.

The third example of the limitation of choice Stewart mentions is less about gameplay and more about the mistakes a player can make while playing. I’ll call this the limitation of accident forgiveness. This can happen after important events when the autosave will kick in and force the player to accept the change or revert back to a previous manual save…

And when do we perform a manual save, children? “All the gosh-darn time,” that’s right, you’re so smart!

Even in games with autosave systems, every gamer is going to make mistakes and regret not saving when they had the chance. These times come more often when the game is a new experience. The worst of these is when it’s time to choose a dialogue option in the game, and the game itself doesn’t describe the choice very well. Hilarity can sometimes ensue, but most of the time it will piss off the NPC and the player. Fallout 4 was known for this until the introduction of mods that expanded the dialogue options.

One of the best games I’ve seen avoid this limitation of accident forgiveness is actually Into the Breach; its time-travel mechanic made it possible to reverse already-made movements and attacks once per battle. This handy tool saved my bacon many times. Even then, however, I was in the midst of my next turn and regretted not being able to turn the clock backwards just a little further. In a similar game like Final Fantasy Tactics? No such accident forgiveness. If you move or act, it’s set in stone, whether you’ve made a mistake or not.

Another game that avoids this limitation is Fallout: New Vegas, which warns you with a text box stating that if you continue working with a certain faction, you’ll soon be unable to work with an opposing faction. Unimmersive, sure, but helpful.

Also, have you ever made a mistake while playing a permadeath character? This isn’t fun.

2977335-0001

Three out of the three XCOM soldiers in this picture will die by the end of the match. When you consistently miss 85% accuracy shots, you begin to wonder if you’re the one at fault.

So, in the end, we have:

  • Limitation by mechanics (programmed barriers to backtracking)
  • Limitation by plot choice (plot choices that restrict options)
  • Limitation of resources (items, abilities, stats, and team configurations)
  • Limitation of accident forgiveness (ability to backtrack after making a mistake)

Which ones are allowable, which ones should be better designed, and which ones should never see the light of day again in today’s role-playing games? I think they all have their place, although I am seeing a shift from finite resource limitations in RPGs past to games with unlimited but difficult-to-acquire items that only require time and skill. It’s a good trend to follow. But in the end, it’s up to the designers and developers of each game to establish and explain the extent of each of these limitations.