Backstage Tales – Gaming Confessions

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My brain isn’t fully healed, and won’t be for a few weeks while the medicine my doctor prescribed slowly builds in my system. But it’s National Video Game Day, dang it! I must celebrate it! And I’m going to do that by writing down my Gaming Confessions in a precise and well-organized list (if, by precise and well-organized, I mean as organized by my brain right at this minute). It might not be in as much detail as I want for lack of time (I have a class to get to tonight unfortunately), but it’s fun regardless.

A Game Everyone Loves (But You Can’t Stand)

Sorry, all the people.

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I’ve tried. I really have. Dark Souls 2 and sit lonely and cold in my Steam library just waiting for me to try again, but I can’t. I know in my heart of hearts that the Dark Souls franchise just isn’t for me. The sheer joy that comes from clinching a boss with 1/4th of your health and no Estus remaining just doesn’t compare with the sheer disappointment of losing thousands of souls again and again after struggling through masses of vicious enemies only to get jumped on out of nowhere by that one dude you didn’t see. It’s like you’re choosing to play a game where your memory card gets corrupted and deletes your progress every time you die or rest at a bonfire. Combined with the lack of a clear jargon-free narrative and a menu and combat system that takes serious time to comprehend, I’ve just never been able to get into it.

Maybe it will click for me one day, and will hop on the bandwagon for Dark Souls 6. I hope so. Everyone seems to be having such a good time with Dark Souls.

A Game Everyone Hates (But You Love)

Yay!

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I played Spore way too much. I bought my first graphics card specifically so I could play this and Fable (I guess both games could tie here). This was before I had any idea the kind of shenanigans Peter Molyneux could get himself into with his big mouth. I knew nothing about Spore before purchasing it except that it looked like a truckload of fun, and it was. I’ve played way too many hours of this to count.

Looking back, I probably should have avoided this game and its broken promises. But when promised a “galaxy-in-a-box”, I tend to overlook the negative. I’m a sucker that way.

An Older Game You Haven’t Finished (And Probably Never Will)

Makes me sad.

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Kain’s betrayal, Cecil’s redemption from Dark Knight to Paladin, Edward the Spoony Bard, Palom and Porom’s sacrifice… Final Fantasy IV was a special game to me. Unfortunately, I didn’t play it until it was re-released with Chrono Trigger as Final Fantasy Chronicles, and Chrono Trigger got the better part of my fandom.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have time to give the game the attention it deserves, but if I do, you’ll hear it here first.

A Guilty Pleasure Game

This. Just this.

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Holy crap, I’ve gotten into this game this past weekend. It is so much fun. And I don’t even have a Playstation Plus account. If I had the money, I would seriously consider picking up the PC version and hook up my PS4 controller to it just so I could circumvent Sony’s stupid online connectivity and play with other people.

Yes. A game that I would willing play with other people.

Don’t get me wrong, Monster Hunter World is totally solo-able. But I don’t see me getting up there too high in rank without some help. Despite this, I will still happily long sword the crap out of rathians, radobaans, and nergigantes until my thumbs fall off. I came into the series on my PSP, and I’m loving every second of this complex slice-and-dice-the-monster simulator.

PETA, eat your heart out. I prefer to capture, anyway.

A Game You Really Love (But Haven’t Played in Years)

Oh man. Zelda time.

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I was 12. It was April. It wasn’t Christmas. My birthday had passed. I begged my Mom to get this game for me.

She actually did, Expansion Pak and all. I thank her to this day.

I haven’t played it in many years, but I watch speedruns of it regularly (they’re fascinating, check out MajinPhil for the latest tech in Majora’s Mask speedrunning). It’s incredible how easily they break through obstacles that I couldn’t figure out as a kid.

A Game You Never Play Seriously (But Others Definitely Do)

Remember how I hate multiplayer?

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Yeah. Starcraft 2. I’m in love with the co-op at the moment, don’t get me wrong. But I have neither the competitive drive nor the reflexes necessary to be a Starcraft player, much less a good Starcraft player. I am stunned at how necessary both speed and confidence are to play this game properly, and I have neither of those in any sort of capacity.

I know that Starcraft is an Olympic-sized swimming pool. But don’t mind me, I’ll just swim in the shallow end with the kiddies playing co-op missions and the campaigns over and over. I don’t mind. At least I don’t have carpal tunnel from all the micro.

A Game You Completed (But Hated By The End)

Yeah. Great beginning. Poor ending.

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Dead Island was what I wanted out of a zombie game. It was relatively open world, in an iconic locale, and I’d pick up weapons and loot from luggage and tiki bars, all the while smacking the crap out of undead beach-going corpses until my paddle broke. That is, until I got my electrified katana, and all was well with the world.

And then cliché story about paramilitary something-or-other, zombie wife, ‘kick the dog‘  trope downer ending sequel yadda yadda yadda… All the freshness of the ‘tourist resort turned zombie playground’ got sucked out by the vacuum of the story. I don’t think I’ll be playing it again, but I had my share of fun with it until the ending happened. Why do Colonels always gotta be the bad guys, huh? It’s like that rank has some stigma attached to it or something.

And despite almost being stuck in development hell for six years, Dead Island 2 is still coming. We’ll see if I end up playing it. After the whole Dead Island: Riptide pre-order debacle, I’m not sure I want to shovel any more money towards the company who thought that was a good idea.

A Game You Thought You’d Enjoy (But Definitely Didn’t)

Aww. I was so excited for this game.

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I was stunned speechless by the physics engine and all the pretty lights. I loved the voice acting and the motion capture. The first game was an original Star Wars story; sure, it may not have been canon-friendly, but it was one I was sure I wanted to continue.

By the end, I had had enough. With half the total playtime and a quarter the story of the first game, The Force Unleashed 2 was awful. Playing with the most confusing aspect of the Star Wars extended universe (aka cloning force users) and offering no concrete answers in return, it managed to resurrect the Gary Stu (or male Mary Sue) of Starkiller and make him even more powerful and angsty.

“You weren’t sure of you identity in the first game? Well, this time, you’re not even sure you’re a clone of the original guy or the real article that survived somehow! You squish AT-STs with your bare hands, but Vader controls you by your unstable emotions somehow!”

Yeah, wasn’t impressed, won’t be playing again.

A Game You Didn’t Think Was Meant For You (But Definitely Was)

I’m so glad I played this at least once.

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I’m not a COD player. I’ve only played Modern Warfare 2. First-person shooters are a struggle for me. So I don’t entirely understand what possessed me to pick up Spec Ops: The Line in the first place. It might have been on sale, and I think I was going through a phase.

According to critics (to whom I will defer for details about the combat system), Spec Ops: The Line isn’t the greatest military shooter. But I don’t think that’s why it was created in the first place. If you have the stomach to look at some pretty graphic imagery and understand that the game is trying to tell a very specific story about the realities of war and “heroism”, play this game.

I wouldn’t recommend a replay, although maybe it’s time I did just to take it all in again. But as an English major with great interest in the consequences of the modern Western military mentality (and the industry equivalent that seems to want to make gamers into soldiers), it was definitely for me.

A Game You Are Still Excited For (That Hasn’t Come Out Yet)

This one:

Square-Enix. Square-Enix, please. Please. It has to happen. You would shatter my heart and fill it with such happiness. Yes, it’s a fake trailer. But please make another Chrono game. And please make Janus the main character. He deserves to regain his memories. He deserves redemption. He deserves to be reunited with his sister.

We need to know the consequences of Serge’s actions in Chrono Cross. Did he and his friends free Schala for good, banishing Lavos forever to the darkness beyond time, thereby erasing its existence from history? Could the world even be the same without Lavos in it? Or does some part of the monster still exist in the world as long as humanity thrives?

I need to know.

I NEEEEED TO KNOOOOOW.

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Fill in the blank. Ha!

Anybody else want to fill out their Gaming Confessions before the day is through? 😀

Backstage Tales – A Reason to Game

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Hey everybody, I’m back. Sorta. I’ve emerged from a depression coma into a three-day weekend, so that’s an improvement in anyone’s book. Nothing medicine-wise has changed yet, however, so I’m still stuck in the same darkish mood. Accordingly, I’ve had a really hard time deciding on what to write; I promised Graveyard Keeper, but something about the game is really bugging me, and I can’t explain it. Hopefully for the next blog I can iron it out.

Instead, I wanted to expand upon an answer I recently wrote for Quora, as I felt I wasn’t entirely truthful about my feelings. I’ll post my answer as I wrote it and add more to it, and hopefully it won’t feel like a rambling mess by the time I’m finished. The question I answered went like this:

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Does playing video games feel pointless and unproductive to you? Why or why not?

“Very much yes. And very much no. And also absolutely not.

“Very much yes, because (as my Dad would put it) the hundreds of hours I’ve put into Skyrim, Diablo, and Escape Velocity could have been spent honing more practical abilities, such as writing, playing an instrument, or picking up a more hands-on hobby like leatherworking, sculpting, or sewing. While these hobbies are expensive and often require a mentor, I don’t like to comprehend the amount of dollars I’ve put into my Steam library searching for what I hope will become my next favorite time-absorber.

“Very much no, because my electronic hobby has enabled my depressed mind to take a step back from itself and literally voyage into other worlds. For someone with depression and social anxiety, games like Final Fantasy XIV has allowed me to become part of a group of people that enjoy the same game and want to experience it with other fun-loving drama-free people. Minecraft has allowed me to become a kid again and share an infinite blocky world with friends and family in a way that would be prohibitively expensive if we did it with Legos, wood, resin, or metal.

“Absolutely not, because video games have helped me become a more confident and critical reader and writer. I love the medium of video game storytelling because I’ve experienced the shock of betrayals, story twists, and character revelations in an arguably stronger way than books can. Books allow you to follow a protagonist, movies allow you to see the protagonist, but only in video games are you allowed to be the protagonist and experience stories in a way no other medium has yet to share.

“The first time I experienced the climax of Bioshock was something I’ll never forget. Although a little formulaic, the first Knights of the Old Republic reveal really got me good. And the climax and ending to Spec Ops: The Line is something I thought could only dared be done on paper or on the big screen (there’s a reason the game developers promised to never create a sequel). Sure, you get floppy story structures like Fallout 4’s main story. But in the same game, you get the tragedy of Arlen Glass and the challenging of the concept of personhood and personal identity (what is a synth?). As the medium evolves, the stories will improve, and they’ll continually challenge us and our assumptions about what makes good fiction.

“Video games are just like any entertainment medium: it’s up to us to determine what we make of them. From Madden and Arkham Knight to Borderlands 2 and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, they all have a purpose. Find some that suit yours!”

———-

I’ve probably talked about this at length in previous posts, but I think it’s been long enough. There’s another aspect to my love for video games that is perhaps larger than all of the ones I stated in my answer that I couldn’t have covered properly in a Quora answer. And that involves my depression and how I deal with it.

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Madness? Insert ‘this is Sparta’ meme here.

I’ve always fancied myself a very independent person, even though that couldn’t be further from the truth. I simply like to be alone, as being in a large group of people is uncomfortable to me, even if the crowd is made up of friends and family. If I can be home free of distractions at my computer listening to my favorite music and playing my favorite games, that’s where I’m going to be. That’s my default. Is that healthy? No, and I’ll be the first to admit it. Would I prefer that I spend my time honing my writing skills, or drawing, or leatherworking, or learning to play the guitar? Some part of me thinks so, but whenever I sit down by myself and don’t distract my mind as soon as possible, I open myself up to negativity the moment I take a seat.

So I’m damned: do I force myself to enjoy the company of others, building up more and more mental tension inside myself until I go crazy from the social drain, or do I confine myself to a solitary existence, playing the victim to my own treasonous thoughts? My answer is neither. My answer is to distract my mind with as many digital micro-goals as I can focus on to avoid the spiral of depression. Beat this level, obtain this item, talk to this NPC… ever on to the next thing.

This answer has always been a crutch of mine, a backdoor in case someone demands why I waste so much time on my computer. An excuse. But it’s really the only one I’ve got. Let me give you an example of how awful this is.

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This exact one.

Right next to me sitting on my desk right now if a leather-bound journal that I’ve been keeping on and off since 2011. It’s currently a little more than halfway full. My journals have been the source of my worm drawings and are filled with little cartoons and doodles. But if you ignore all the cute pictures and actually read the words I’ve written over the years… It’s not really pretty. I only write in my physical journal when I’m really bored or really depressed, sometimes both. This does not make for a very fun and optimistic read. In fact, I’m hoping that no one reads what’s in my journal for many many years, long after the sting of my emotions has passed.

My previous journals are very similar, especially my mission journals. I was a much happier person on my mission mostly because I didn’t have the burden of my mind keeping me occupied all the time. I had a constant companion and friend that kept the thoughts in check. Of course, even then, I had my off days, not to mention how devastated I felt after I came home early because of kidney stones. My journal writing stopped for a good two years after I came home, starting up again when I got a handle on life.

A handle made of det-cord.

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Now, ten years after I returned home from Los Angeles, I have no companion to help me monitor my thoughts. And the thought of asking a girl on a date and going through the motions of all that again fills me with such dread that I am loathe to think what kind of man I would appear to be if I actually went through with it. Certainly not one I would consider for a healthy long-term relationship with. But there’s my anti-me bias again.

And there the book ever sits, always inviting me to write in it but ever filling with the most negative of my thoughts and anxieties. I’m writing a testament of my own darkness. I’m an observer of my own life, and nothing more, because the alternative to too difficult for me to comprehend.

A few blogs back, I said I would never throw a pity party for myself because of my depression. That I wasn’t a “snowflake Millennial” for all of my experiences. And yet so many of my male peers seem to be going through the same thing for similar reasons. How can I resent a descriptor that is so lock-step with my experience? Video games are wonderful things filled with incredible experiences and innovative systems, but when they come at the cost of my personal health, I begin to wonder if there’s anything I can actually do instead. I always have a choice to play or not. That’s not the question. It’s more of a question of what I would replace video games in my life. And nothing else compares. Not even writing, and I love writing… when I’m not depressed.

Let me tell you, the journal sitting next to me is not an appealing alternative.

Have I chosen my hobby or has my hobby chosen me? Do I play for fun or do I play to survive? I think the answer to that is fairly obvious. Is it bad that my gaming hobby (call it an addiction if you wish) is the only activity I consider strong enough to distract the negativity in my mind? Or is it just sad?

And in the end, is there anything that I will do to try and change?

No, not really. I suppose that’s why you could call it an addiction. I’m not even brazen enough to say, “I can quit whenever I want.” I fully admit to being dependent on my hobby to remain sane. But if my chosen hobby were leatherworking, music, or even writing, would it be any more preferable? Or safe?

Hey, at least I’m not doing hard drugs.

…or am I?

Theories of a Gamer – Ambiguously Unambiguous Evil

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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:

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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.”

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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!?

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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

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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”?

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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.

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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.

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

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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:

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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!

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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.

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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).

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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.

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“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’!

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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.

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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.

Backstage Tales – Multiplayer and Me

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Guess which one I am.

So our group on the Meraki Minecraft server were all geared up on Friday evening and ready to take on the mighty dragon in The End. I had spent more than a few hours trying to find the diamonds and the levels to prepare my gear with enchantments and protections to help me make a difference in the fight. I had even created a bunch of level two healing potions for our entire group. When the time came, we all donned our carved pumpkin heads to avoid pestering the endermen, prepared our weapons and supplies, and jumped into the End portal.

We ended up suspended on a platform a good thirty or forty blocks away from the dragon’s island, hanging over eternity and watching the dragon swoop, unsure if he’d spotted us yet. Not the best situation. As quickly as we could, we bent down low and built a bridge to the island, fortunately connecting to a cliff where we could hide or regroup if the battle went poorly. I followed my friends into the cliff side as they dug upwards, readied my bow, and charged forwards, ready to fight…!

The dragon sneezed at us just as my friends broke through the wall. I promptly fell off the bridge from the force of the blast, hitting a lower cliff on the way down. It broke my fall a little too well.

Yes, I died, not thirty seconds into the fight, and without even seeing the dragon. And I would have lost all my gear if not for the fact that the cliff caught some of it, and one of my friends had been kind enough to break away from the dragon fight to help me reclaim what was left. Of course, none of my awesome enchanted armor had survived the fall, or my awesome enchanted bow, so I was all arrows and pickaxe against the toughest creature in Minecraft. Yes, I died a few more times trying to help. My sister ended up beating the dragon, seemingly single-handedly (at the very least, she didn’t die once).

*sigh*

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“One of us… One of us…”

Then yesterday, a much less exciting but equally self-deprecating thing happened. I had spent a few more hours trying to reestablish my equipment and levels. Finding myself on a footing almost equal to my pre-dragon-fight condition, I decided that it was time to actually build something on my little plot of land. I gathered up all the materials, even making many colors of stained glass to see if I could make something with that (it was new to me, so you can see how long it’s been since I’ve sat down and enjoyed Minecraft), put some of my materials in a chest near the build site… and my dad calls me to go help him do something. So I put the game on pause and leave my computer.

Yes, pause. On a multiplayer server.

So, naturally, I come back to see the words ‘Game Over’ pasted on my screen and a very smug-looking and now sunlight-immune zombie peering down at my death camera wearing a shiny new diamond helmet. He had no doubt spawned during the nighttime, attacked defenseless little old me, and had nothing better to do than sit there for me to return so he could gloat. In punishment, I punched him to death. It took me about ten minutes.

*sigh*

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Jerk.

Turning to something outside of Minecraft, earlier last month, I tried my hand at playing Darwin Project, a third-person arena-style survival shooter where it’s survival of the fittest in a wintery wasteland of frozen death. Me, my brother-in-law, and a few friends were taking turns sniping each other with arrows and axing each other senseless.

Well, since absolutely everything is new to me, from the map layout to the arena decorations, I have no idea what I’m doing. Very first round, I spawn on an island-ish checkpoint surrounded by lava.

I walk straight off the cliff into the lava and die.

Okay, shake it off, shake it off…

Next round, my brother-in-law and I discover each other in the same area of the map and attack each other. Now, when two player in Darwin Project attack each other at the same time, their ax attacks clang against each other, negating damage to either player and sending them flying. This happens to us, I just so happen to have my back against a cliff.

I go flying into lava and die.

Okay, twice isn’t a pattern.

The next round, my brother-in-law and I are teammates. I see these strange mechanical mushroom things springing out of the ground in groups every so often. They look smackable, so I smack one with my ax and I go flying; of course, they’re supposed to be trampoline pads you can use to get speed and direction.

I go flying into lava and die.

That’s three times. Now it’s a pattern.

*sigh*

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Oh, cozy. Warm. WARMER. TOO HOT. BURNING MY FLESSSSHH.

Sure, when I play games like Fallout 4 and Fat Man myself into oblivion by accident, I can laugh and continue from my last save. I can mess around in The Sims or Cities: Skylines without fear of judgementI can dedicate myself to ridiculous min-maxing in Final Fantasy Tactics, Path of Exile, or Diablo 3. When I make a mistake in a game like Civilization or Endless Space, it can cost me a lot of time and in-game resources, but it doesn’t ever affect anyone but me.

But get me into a multiplayer game, even one in which I have a lot of experience and play time, and something is going to go wrong. Murphy’s Law might as well be a fiery blood-stained mantle that descends from the high celestial heavens and onto my weak and feeble shoulders whenever I join others for a digital jaunt. And I’m not talking about the anxiety and uncertainty that comes with playing multiplayer. Oh no. That’s an entirely separate issue. An entirely plumb-shaped separate issue from hell. I’ll talk about that another time.

I’m talking about the struggle of even appearing competent in multiplayer situations. I’ve been taught by society at large that multiplayer is the best way to play. When you know your teammates or are related to them, I agree. But when you don’t know who you’re playing with, feelings are ambiguous at best and antagonistic at worst.

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It’s not about having fun. It’s about crushing your enemies. Seeing them driven before you. And hearing the lamentations of their women.

In certain MMORPGs like Final Fantasy XIV, the main story missions ask you to queue up for a four-man trials or instances. If you happen to be a tank class character on your first foray into these dungeons, be prepared to get yelled at by impatient teammates (despite the fact that there’s always a tank shortage in the game roster, hmm, I wonder why). If you’re not a tank, you better play to your role and know how each sideboss and main boss functions. If you screw up, prepared to get berated. Heck, even if you do know the dungeon and can get through it with few problems, prepare to get lectured at by a player who insist they know better regardless. And guess what? There’s no continuing the story if you can’t get past these dungeons. (It’s why I played The Old Republic for so long and am only now getting back into Final Fantasy XIV – through the entirety of the main story, dungeons are multiplayer optional and are even now able to be enjoyed single player.)

Know why I quit playing Team Fortress 2 after reaching almost 300 hours with it? Same reason I stopped playing League of Legends: because of my inability to deal with toxic people. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not crazy-skilled at first-person shooters or hero arena games. But needless to say, the second, third, fourth, and fifth etc. to admit it would be anyone I played with.

Winning is the point of most multiplayer games, at least in the short term. If you don’t know anyone in the game, in the guild, or on Discord, it feels like you’d better have the skills to pay your hypothetical bills, or else you’re like to become a pariah (or in the very least feel like one). For a few weeks after my first Darwin Project experience, I felt like you could pretty reliably label me as ‘Falling-Into-Lava-Man’, and I wouldn’t have held it against them if they never invited me to play again.

 

And now, in front of the same group of people (some I know well and some I don’t), I fall immediately to my death in Minecraft at the moment I could have been most heroic, and the story of Falling-to-Death-Man continues.

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All that preparation and balance for a quick drop and a short stop.

Do you know how much it hurts me to hear talk of AAA single-player games “dying off”? (Believe me, I want to rant and rave at the writer of this Forbes article, EA, and the entire line of thinking, but I won’t.) Do you know why I connected so deeply with No Man’s Sky when it was first released? It was an entire universe all to myself. There was no emphasis on multiplayer. In fact, their whole design philosophy was on the experience of loneliness amid the stars. The head of Hello Games, Sean Murray, said that the chances of meeting another human being in the game were slim to none, the universe was so huge (this was proven incorrect, of course). Sure, other people could name things in it. But I wouldn’t be stumbling onto Xxx_ManBooty69 or his PvP attitude anytime soon.

But yes, it appears that No Man’s Sky caved to public pressure for multiplayer. Or maybe it was always meant to be this way, but the game wasn’t given the development time to see it through until NEXT. I’ll hesitantly agree that the game is better with the multiplayer component than without it (since its inclusion was never PvP, and NEXT wouldn’t have been half as successful without its inclusion). Yes, I know the option to turn off network play is there. But really: in this day and age, when mankind has never been more connected through the medium of technology, when screenshots of the fantastic sights of the procedurally-generated cosmos fill the subreddits and Twitter, did we really need multiplayer to enjoy No Man’s Sky together?

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating that every single game cater to a single-player preference. But as a gamer who is coming to the realization that my passion for gaming is far outweighing my talent, to see a traditionally single-player game like the upcoming Fallout 76 reveal itself to be multiplayer makes me more than a little nervous (and I’m not the only one). I can’t even claim to be the crotchety old man who prefers single-player games, as video games have been since their very inception been multiplayer experiences. I’m just a gamer that prefers to escape the pressure of the world through the medium of games instead of more closely connecting with it.

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You’ll take my T-51 helmet when you pry it from my cold, dead… Oh, fine. Just take it.

Of course, I undermine my entire point by saying that my experiences on the Meraki server have been very fun thus far, and the adventures of Falling-to-Death-Man will continue for a good long while. I will probably continue to collide with my friend’s ships in No Man’s Sky multiplayer, too.

*sigh*

And don’t even get me started on battle royales like Fortnite or PUBG. I hear a hellish choir rise from deep within the earth: “Git gud, scrub,” they chant. You might as well ask me to go stand out in a field with antler-shaped earmuffs and a fluffy tail during November.

My (Preliminary) 10-Hour Tale – No Man’s Sky

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“Oh, Mr. Conductor,” I say with exuberance, waving down a man dressed in a bright pink space suit and a tiny blue conductor’s hat. “Does the hype train get off at the next exit, my dear sir?”

“NO,” says the bright pink conductor of the Hype Train in a booming voice that reminds me of the unwavering density and blackness of the vast universe.

“THE HYPE TRAIN NEVER STOPS.”

Chugga-chugga, choo-choo, my friends. Man, very few video games get into the hype levels No Man’s Sky has generated. I didn’t even feel Fallout 4 or Fallout 76 got this much attention, especially considering this is the third such wave of excitement for the 70’s-sci-fi-book-cover space exploration simulator. Even the lead programmer and head of Hello Games had this to say:

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Nothing says despair and dread like a lower-case “oh no”.

His reaction is appropriate. At the game’s release in 2016, I bought into the hype train like crazy and spent the full $60 game for something that was very unpolished and most decidedly not multiplayer. This derailed the Hype Train quite badly for a lot of people, leading Steam reviews to put No Man’s Sky at Mostly Negative.

Fortunately, I don’t think Sean Murray and the team at Hello Games has much to worry about anymore with No Man’s Sky’s latest update called NEXT. How big and important was this update? When I downloaded, it came to about 6.7 Gb. Impressive, I thought, for a game that was about that large before the update. But what’s more impressive is what it meant for the originally single-player-only experience: No Man’s Sky is actually multiplayer.

And what’s more? The game looks even more incredible than it did before from both a gameplay and a graphics standpoint.

I mean, look at what the last three days did for No Man’s Sky:

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Wow!

It’s gone from Mostly Negative to Mixed. I don’t think I’ve yet seen a game do that. And that’s 2000 positive reviews more than there were yesterday. I mean, just take a look at the patch notes for NEXT. Hello Games took their sci-fi adventure and flipped it on its head. Base building is nearly infinite, freighter armadas can be purchased and travel the stars with you, and even the basic building materials and recipes have been overhauled to the point where crafting and exploration is now an exciting venture instead of a mindless grind.

Admittedly, I struggled and panicked at the very start of the game; I was dropped onto a very radioactive planet with no ship and three-fourths of my radiation shielding gone, and had no idea what materials I needed to recharge it. I didn’t even have a scanner to search! But panic turns into resolve when you finally get your bearings, and following the mysterious storyline of the Atlas is proving to be very interesting.

There’s finally a reason to upgrade your blaster: biological horrors and sentinels show up in the worst places, and even caves are no longer safe places to hide. You’ll need to refine the raw materials you harvest from the worlds you explore, and refined materials are often more valuable than their components. Oceans are deep enough to fly under (this may be a bug, I’m unsure) and mountains are now continental in height. Artifacts can be found in hidden underground ruins and can sell for millions of credits, incentivizing exploration and discovery in a way the game hadn’t before.

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I made a dad joke! Do you get it? 1.3k people did!

With all that said, I did encounter two game-breaking day-one bugs that interrupted my play.

The first was a bug with the main quest; the quest wouldn’t allow me to warp to another system until I fueled my ship with antimatter. I would craft the warp fuel and fuel my hyperdrive only to have the quest reset and send me back for more antimatter. Good news: unlimited fuel. Bad news: no way to use it. I managed to un-bug the quest by purchasing another ship. I imagine it was something to do with the fact that I got a ship with a hyperdrive earlier than the quest assumed I would get one. Interestingly, I had a similar problem with earlier updates of No Man’s Sky.

The second occurred when only partially repairing some systems on my ship. The game didn’t like ‘partial repair’ so much that the next time I loaded my save game, the game initialized on a brand new world as if I’d started a brand new game, with no inventory, no ship, no upgrades, nothing. I fixed this with help from the No Man’s Sky Reddit and editing some junk code from my save file.

As of an hour ago, I’ve learned that both of these issues have been patched out, however. So as far as bugs are concerned, the only ones I’ve stumbled across are gone.

I thought I’d start out on normal mode, but to be honest, creative mode is looking really appealing. Check out this awesome cliffside base by ParagonHex:

I’ve played NEXT for about five hours now, and I have no desire to stop. I’ll have more to share in the coming days, but until then, consider this a tentative but glowing review of No Man’s Sky. I can’t wait to helm the bridge of my own freighter fleet and establish a sprawling base on a tropical planet. In the meantime, I’ll be trying to discover my first ruin and not get eaten by horrors.

Early Review: 9/10