The Outer Worlds Is An Imperfect Mutation Of New Vegas

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The Outer Worlds is a game which very much wants you to remember that the blood of Fallout: New Vegas is pumping through its veins. The announcement trailer specifically namedrops New Vegas as the studio’s pedigree, despite the fact that Obsidian has released 5 games since, including its own wholly original and wildly successful Pillars of Eternity, which went unmentioned. The game is rife with small stylistic touches that point back to modern Fallout, from the particular way that characters are framed during dialog sequences to the syntax for in-dialogue skill checks to the way the game sometimes slows time for a cinematic depiction of a final blow on an enemy crumpling them to the ground. Both explicitly and subtly, this game is screaming to you “I’m cut from the same cloth as New Vegas“.

Being kin with New Vegas is a strong sell for me. It’s absolutely one of my favorites, I’ve played it for hundreds of hours, and I actually have a New Vegas tattoo on my left arm. A game that follows up on that game’s ideas was always going to be an instant buy from me, and now having put a bow on my 20-or-so hour playthrough of the game, my final opinion is something along the lines of “Uh, you kinda did it?”

Fallout: New Vegas is a hell of a game to tee off against. Considered by many (myself included) to be the best Fallout game, which is unto itself an extremely highly regarded series, New Vegas had some ideas that few games of its ilk since have ever dared to match. Extremely solid writing and open-ended quest design made for a world that made good on the “play how you want” promises of the RPG genre, making a game that would anticipate your attempts to break its structure and allow you the freedom to do so. Some extremely solid character progression mechanics let you really create a unique avatar, such that every playthrough of New Vegas genuinely feels different. The grand plot of the game was crafted from the ground up for open-world play, solving the dissonance between “save the world” narratives and meandering gameplay by describing a world that was locked in a stalemate until an agent of chaos (that is, you) knocked it loose.

Despite all of this, New Vegas absolutely still has issues, some of its own creation and some created retroactively by the modern landscape of gaming. The combat is fairly lackluster and has gotten worse with age, the characters all have that cold and lifeless “Bethesda face”, and the color palette of the game consists mostly of shades of poop brown and concrete grey. Furthermore, while the game’s strategic possibility space of kill-sneak-talk definitely allows for a wide range of player choice, as time progresses and more games implement the same options, New Vegas‘s implementation feels more and more stale.

Understanding New Vegas‘s successes and failures is, I think, critical to properly evaluating the success of The Outer Worlds, because The Outer Worlds actively wants you to think of it in the same space as New Vegas. All aspects of the game feel like they are either following New Vegas, or are differing specifically in response to New Vegas.

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So here comes The Outer Worlds. Coming out almost a decade after New Vegas, under the same studio (I can’t say how much of the actual New Vegas team still works at Obsidian, admittedly), we’re taking another crack at the same general design ethos. This game represents an opportunity to grab New Vegas‘s best ideas, shave away its worst drawbacks, and evolve this style of open-world player driven game, a style of game whose modern progenitor isn’t exactly hitting homers right now.

The Outer Worlds makes some fantastic steps forward for the genre. The greatest of these are the companions, who feel in many cases like the crew of Firefly as rendered through the mechanics and writing of Mass Effect. They’re generally a set of interesting characters, who crucially provide insight into the setting, as well as have a lot of genuinely interesting banter with one another. The simple decision to let you have two human companions at a time (instead of New Vegas, which let you take one human companion with either a non-sentient robot or a dog) creates tons of space to explore the relationships of your crew.

Combat, while still probably not up to snuff for a lot of people, is definitely a step in the right direction. V.A.T.S has been replaced with a time slow-down ability which drains a meter of, I dunno, time juice, giving you those moments of quiet mid-combat to plan while still relying on your gunslinging ability instead of V.A.T.S making you roll the dice. A tactical dodge added to your core repertoire, along with what seems to be a decreased prevalence of hitscan weapons, makes movement feel much more important than in gunfights in the Mojave. Some streamlined companion commands, as well as very spammable companion abilities, provide crowd-control that I wish I would have had against some of New Vegas‘s threats (coughCazadorescough).

If there’s a place where I can point to The Outer Worlds being lesser than New Vegas, it’s in quest design. Almost every quest in the game entails going somewhere, shooting some guys (or sneaking past some guys or speech checking some guys), getting a thing, and taking it back to one of maybe several people back in town. There isn’t a sense that you can really do quests any way you want. Instead, other than the kill-sneak-talk triumvirate for dealing with enemies, it seems that everyone’s going to do every quest essentially the exact same way.

A lackluster character progression system doesn’t help with this. Skills are leveled up in clusters of related skills instead of individually for their first 50 ranks, a system which definitely led to me becoming a jack-of-all-trades without any real specialties. While many of New Vegas‘s perks could be called on to open up new ways to play (such as Cannibal, which gave you a new source of health regen and opened up new dialogue options in certain quests), The Outer Worlds‘s perks are mostly bland statistical buffs, few of which even hit at new ways to handle the game’s challenges. This compounds by rendering the game’s flaw system, a super interesting idea wherein the game will offer you narrative-driven debuffs in exchange for perk points, irrelevant. As a result, your character ends up lacking anything resembling a unique feature.

Strangely adding to this is the game’s loot. There are not that many weapons in the game, which opts to have you find enhanced versions of early-game guns and melee weapons as the game progresses instead of giving you wholly new weapons, meaning you’ll be shooting the same assault rifle at hour 20 that you were shooting at hour 1. There’s a very small set of equipment mods, most of which you’ll have found before you left the first planet, which don’t really help to make your loadout feel special. Ironically, this is a problem that Fallout 4, a game I otherwise don’t like, solved with a crafting system that helped your guns feel genuinely unique. In this game, you end up feeling like an indistinct character, wielding a factory-default weapon, doing the same quests the same way as everyone else.

So my opinion of this game is sort of mixed. Steps forward in a lot of ways, including many I haven’t the word count to bring up here (the art style is so much better). Steps backward in others, including many I still haven’t the wordcount to bring up here (I found myself missing the Pip-Boy radio a lot).

Ultimately, when it comes to my opinion of the game, I have to talk about Philly cheesesteaks. It’ll only take a second.

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In my hometown (which is nowhere the fuck near Philadelphia, for the record), there are two Philly cheesesteak places literally across the street from each other. According to a story my dad told me that might be complete bullshit but serves as a fantastic metaphor, the owner of one of these restaurants is a former employee of the other, who quit either because he hated the owner, the owner hated him, or maybe both. He quit, opened up his own cheesesteak place across the street, and the two have been taking potshots at one another ever since. Apparently they have a penchant for keying each others’ cars.

The funny thing is, the new cheesesteak place, the one started by the disgruntled ex-associate of the first cheesesteak place, unmistakably bears resemblance to the old place. They have literally the exact same menu. I don’t mean both menus have the same items, I mean the new cheesesteak place appears to have taken the physical menu from the old place (legally, I hope), put black tape over any mention of the old place’s name, and hung it up as their own menu.

Here’s the thing: both restaurants? Damn good cheesesteak. I go to both. I definitely prefer the old place, but I’ll go to the new one in a heartbeat. I still prefer both of them to half of the restaurants in this town, most of which are boring, flavorless corporate chains. I don’t want to go to the old place forever, I want these places to grow and get better, and if the thing that motivates growth in the North Texas cheesesteak scene is pure, unfiltered spite? Then, sure, go for it.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m in the mood for cheesesteak.

 

Technoir’s Engine of Intrigue

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I’m running a couple tabletop RPG campaigns right now, but the one I’m probably having the most fun with is a game of Technoir I’m running with three friends from college. I originally learned about the system (as I imagine many people did) through Friends at the Table, a superb actual play podcast which used the system during their COUNTER/Weight series, but it was only once I started to really get into the gears of the system that I realized how incredible it is.

So, on a high level, Technoir is, as the title implies, a game about playing noir-style mystery stories in a far-future cyberpunk setting. Players set about unraveling a massive conspiracy which consumes the world around them, and they do that not by doing forensic analysis and deducing facts and listening to testimony, but by knocking heads together until someone finally blurts out the truth in between bloody gasps in a back alley. Also they all have cyber eyes and katanas and stuff.

Actually, the marriage of cyberpunk and noir is extremely potent here in Technoir. Cyberpunk as a genre is extremely interested in the concept of debt and transaction as a motivating factor for story. Much like noir protagonists, cyberpunk characters are usually broke, requiring massive sums of money to afford the technology that allows them to merely exist in this world. That debt binds them to the corporations, or criminal enterprises, which employ them. A cyberpunk can’t just “go off the grid”. Despite the fact that this world sucks, this world is also the one that pays them. Gibson hammers this theme fairly strongly with Case in Neuromancer, who is unwillingly pulled into the plot by the need for resources which only his criminal benefactor possesses, and to a lesser extent with Turner in Count Zero, who is unwillingly dragged back into his life as a corporate mercenary, but ultimately knows he has no choice.

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Technoir brilliantly leverages this dynamic through the use of Connections, a set of six non-player characters which serve as the glue which binds the players to this world. During character creation, players define their relationships with these Connections, emotionally linking themselves to these six people. They can also take favors from these Connections both during character creation and play, and the one they are almost certainly going to take early on is lending money, putting them in very literal debt to these characters.

Now, the characters are bonded to these six characters, but that’s half of the puzzle. The other half comes in the Plot Map, a graph of connections that the GM maintains which represents the full extent of the conspiracy. At the start of the campaign, the Web is fairly sparse, but as play continues, nodes are added to it, representing people, places, objects, and events which one way or another are a part of the conspiracy.

Now, here’s the clincher: every time a player takes a favor from a Connection, a node representing that Connection gets a new link to another node on the Plot Map. I promise that I’ll get into a detailed analysis of this in a second, but first I want to exclaim to the heavens that this is fucking genius.

So, narratively, here’s what happens. Every time a player calls in a favor from a Connection, their debt to them grows, forcibly linking the two characters over time, as this increasingly lopsided transactional balance grows into Chekhov’s Debt, a looming specter to be cashed in by the Connection at any time. On top of this, every time a player calls in a favor from a Connection, that Connection’s own involvement in the grand plot deepens and gains wrinkles and details.

These simple facts in concert give me as the GM so much to work with. The character is becoming increasingly entangled with the conspiracy itself through their Connection, while also giving this broad, intangible conspiracy a personified face through Connections. A Connection might call in the player’s debt and force them to do something relating to the conspiracy at large, making the players active agents in the conspiracy itself while masking the true nature of their involvement under the simple guise of “paying a debt”. Drawing links between a Connection and the conspiracy gives the GM ample room to motivate the Connection for a betrayal of the players, which will sting all the more due to the amount that the players have interacted with the Connection.

What might seem to be a set of disparate mechanics all essentially create an elaborate trap for the player characters. The favors are an alluring lure on a fishhook, dangled in front of the players and shimmied around for them to look at. The Connections themselves are the fishing line, running from that hook all the way back to the central mystery. All the GM needs to do is dangle the bait in front of the players for long enough before they bite, and then they take hold of the players’ debts like a reel and drag them into their eventual demise in the dead center of the mystery.

The Chuck Tingle RPG Isn’t Quite What This Buckaroo Was Hoping For

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If you’re relatively well-versed in Internet, you know who Chuck Tingle is. If you don’t, uh, buckle up. And maybe don’t read this in public.

//Content Warning: This post is about erotica. So, y’know. Erotica stuff incoming. Actually, lemme just put a page break here if you’re scrolling at work.

Continue reading “The Chuck Tingle RPG Isn’t Quite What This Buckaroo Was Hoping For”

Alright, Let’s Talking About This Fucking Wendy’s Thing

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This week, American fast food company Wendy’s released a tabletop RPG entitled Feast of Legends. The game clocks in a smidge under one hundred pages, and is clearly heavily cribbing from 5th Edition Dungeons and Dragons, most notably due to its D20-based dice system and a general visual design that feels close enough to the graphic language of 5E without attracting the ire of wandering copyright lawyers. In it, the heroes of “Freshtovia”, all of whom are based on Wendy’s menu items, fight to protect the land from “the Ice Jester”, which I guess is supposed to be a jab at the fact that McDonald’s freezes their hamburger patties.

In case I haven’t smeared that opening paragraph with enough venom, I fucking hate this. I try to not swear a ton on this blog, but this disgusts me on a fundamental level. It’s a raging piece of shit. But I want to talk about why it exists, and more constructively, why it’s a raging piece of shit. But first, let’s talk about advertising.

Now, I do not think that the fact that Feast of Legends is, inherently, an advertisement immediately revokes any and all cultural value it has. At bare minimum, advertisements serve as candid encapsulations of the culture that produced it, and in some cases, advertisements can be formed into complete pieces of creative value, or integrated into them without corrupting the greater creative purpose. Many of the classic children’s shows of the ’80s are, ultimately, advertisements for toys. E.T is still a valid piece of artistic work despite the fact that one possible viewing of it is as a very long Reese’s commercial.

However, these are works that exist on multiple levels beyond simple advertising. Obviously, E.T is a whole-ass movie, the majority of which is not about Reese’s Pieces, and Transformers as a brand has evolved into an entire setting’s worth of storytelling, ultimately having just sort of taken a reverse approach to get to the same “media, and merchandise corresponding to media” state that, say, Marvel is in. Feast of Legends… does not do this.

All 97 pages of Feast of Legends tell the exact same joke, with the exact same punchline as Feast of Legends‘ very existence: “It’s D&D, but it’s Wendy’s! Isn’t that weird!”. There’s basically nothing to the game mechanics themselves, it’s just 5E with the hard edges filed off. Rise From The Deep Freeze, the built-in adventure in which the party hunts down and kills Ronald McDonald (presumably for the crime of being much more popular than Wendy’s), is pretty shit, an uninspired and railroad-y affair that probably expects most of its momentum to come from how wacky it is that everything is D&D, But Wendy’s. An early adventure employs the “two guardians, one tells the truth, one always lies” riddle that everyone remotely familiar with riddles has known the solution to since they were twelve (representing an almost delightfully earnest admission of running out of ideas very early in the writing process), except they are called Unsweet and Sweet Tea.

This complete lack of any sort of creative spirit shows basically everywhere. The game doesn’t have an actual progression system, instead it just tells you at random intervals in the packed-in adventure “Oh yeah, everyone levels up now”. All of the character abilities are just extremely run-of-the-mill RPG abilities painted with the thinnest veneer of “But It’s Wendy’s!” flavor text. The tone of the writing thinks it’s much more clever than it is.

And, like, whatever, a corporation made a bad game. This ain’t news. We all remember Sneak King, the baffling Burger King stealth game about surprising people with shitty hamburgers. More recently, KFC released a visual novel about dating the Colonel, which people more well-versed in visual novels have already torn apart far better than I could. Brands make shitty games all the time.

But there’s something about making a tabletop RPG that I find particularly offensive. At least that KFC dating sim was free, and is just a waste of my time. Definitionally, a tabletop RPG is both a massive social and temporal investment. The mere existence of this game suggests that I should get my friends together, for multiple hours, on multiple nights, for essentially the experience of all collaboratively making our own Wendy’s commercial. The creative and generative nature of the medium means that this fucking fast food chain has the gall to suggest that I should bring my friends together and use our infinite creativity and humor to sell Wendy’s to ourselves. There are literally hundreds of free RPGs out in the world, made by people who have something to say, who want to affect the people who play their games in positive ways, who have ideas that they want to try, and you suggest that I should play an entire campaign of “Get it? Because it’s D&D? But it’s Wendy’s!”

However, while I can’t speak to the design intentions of this game, I don’t think this game was meant to be played over an entire campaign. Not really. The purpose of this game is to exist, for people to see it in a Tweet or a slapped together news post and go “pfft, look, it’s D&D, but Wendy’s”. I think Wendy’s Marketing is operating under the premise that merely acknowledging the existence of tabletop RPGs as a hobby, just shitting out the easiest, most bare-bones concession to the hobby, is enough to get people in said hobby to go out and buy a burger. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I find that premise insulting.

Of course, this is Wendy’s’ whole Brand M.O right now. Having largely given up on “convincing people that our food is good”, Wendy’s has lately opted to take advantage of the pointless media attention they get for Doing A Thing That Brands Don’t Normally Do. They’re a mean Twitter account, but they’re Wendy’s! They released a mixtape, but it’s Wendy’s! But at least those things aren’t so presumptuous as to suggest that I should clear mine and my friends’ calendars for Wendy’s.

As long as I have your attention, let’s talk about what a shitty company Wendy’s is! Wendy’s, as of time of writing, is the only one of America’s five biggest fast food chains (the other four being McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, and Taco Bell) who has yet to join with the Alliance for Fair Food and Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program, an initiative which seeks to improve the life of agricultural workers by ensuring fair wages and humane working conditions. Wendy’s refused to join the program (and in fact, moved most of its tomato buying to Mexico, where labor exploitation runs rampant), with a milquetoast rebuttal including the following milquetoast quote (said milquetoast quote has actually since been deleted from their site, but is preserved by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers) :

CIW demands we make payments to employees of the companies who supply our tomatoes from the Immokalee area in Florida — even though they are not Wendy’s employees. CIW is demanding an added fee on top of the price we pay our suppliers. However, because of our high standards, we already pay a premium to our Florida tomato suppliers.

We believe it’s inappropriate to demand that one company pay another company’s employees. America doesn’t work that way.

Yes it does. Building the cost of labor into the price of things is something that, literally, every company on the face of the Earth does with literally every product ever created. What Wendy’s has done is rejected the premise that the fair pay of agricultural labor is worth the cost of one cent per tomato. Instead, Wendy’s made the following limp-wristed promise:

We’re always open to having constructive conversations and we’ll continue to strive for progress. We require responsible business practices in our supply chain and will continue to work to bring greater transparency to these practices so that our customers can continue to feel confident in the brand we love and the values upon which it was built.

“We won’t make any tangible changes at all, but we promise you that at some point, we will try to make changes, maybe” is essentially what that quote means. That post they link, by the way, says jack shit about working conditions and fair wages and mostly discusses how proud they are to grow a fuckload of blackberries.

Don’t subject yourself to this piece of shit game from a soulless corporation. You should value your own time and your friends’ time more than to spend hours, plural, playing a hastily slapped-together advertisement that thinks that cheap jokes and a ludicrous premise are enough to convince you to buy their burgers over someone else’s burgers.

You can find numerous cheap and free tabletop RPGs not written by greedy megacorporations on itch.io.

Learn more about the Fair Food Program on their website.

Crackdown’s Sublimely Subtle Level Design

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Crackdown is not a series known for subtlety. The most recent entry in the series, Crackdown 3, has players leaping off of skyscrapers to shoot rockets into robots while yelling, and I quote, “quack quack motherfucker“. This is a series where a valid answer to the question “How do I deal with these enemies?” is “Have you considered throwing a semi-truck into them?” and yet, the series still has some genuine cleverness to the way it handles its level design.

To catch up anyone who hasn’t played the games, Crackdown is a series about the Agency, a sort of megacorporation police force whose genetically modified Agents solve organized crime by punching it very hard. Superhero games in all but name, Crackdown games are open-world sandboxes in which Agents can leap over skyscrapers, throw cars, and slaughter criminals with a small army’s worth of firepower. It’s some good dumb fun.

For my purposes, the system throughout the series that I’m going to focus on is the “Skills For Kills” mechanic. Simply put, the only way to improve the games’ five skills is to use them. if you want to increase your Firearms, you gotta shoot some guys. Increase your Strength by punching guys, your Driving by doing street races and some sick drifts, and your Explosives by blowing stuff up. The fifth skill, however, Agility, is slightly more interesting.

Agility is not improved just by jumping a lot. Instead, the worlds of Crackdown are littered with Agility Orbs: glowing and humming green balls precariously perched on top of tall things. The taller the thing, the more XP bundled up in the Agility Orb at its peak. The more of that XP you collect, the higher your Agility skill goes, and the higher your Agent can jump. Within this wrinkle is Crackdown‘s genius.

As I mentioned before, Crackdown is open world: each of the three games dumps you into the world after a brief tutorial and says “Go wherever! Have fun murderin’!” This presented an interesting challenge to the developers. They wanted to provide players a freedom to go wherever they want, but want to avoid the world feeling homogeneous, and the gameplay feeling samey. Open world games frequently suggest a player’s path through a world through the scaling of enemy difficulty, but that doesn’t really work for Crackdown: the player Agent becomes a walking WMD that even the game’s toughest enemies usually crumple to fairly early into the game. Here, I imagine, is where the level designers piped up and went “We have an idea”.

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Crackdown and its sequel take place in the fictional Pacific City, an ocean metropolis spread across three islands, and the path through these three islands is implied not via enemy difficulty, but through the height of their buildings. La Mugre features short apartment complexes and undeveloped spaces, The Den features taller industrial complexes and fancier apartments, and the Corridor is a Manhattan-esque cluster of luxury skyscrapers.

Agents freshly inducted into the world will be able to leap La Mugre’s one- and two-story buildings fairly easily, but if they venture into the Corridor they will find themselves climbing skyscrapers at a snail’s pace, having to carefully look for nearby handholds. As their Agility skill increases, and their jump height increases, the highest buildings of La Mugre become vaultable in a single leap, and soon even the Corridor’s towers become easy to climb, with a greater jump height and air control allowing the player to skip large swaths of the handholds on a building’s exterior.

I want to emphasize again that these buildings are not a hard limit. With a few exceptions, the buildings in the Corridor are scaleable even to rookie Agents. The process, however, is slow, and makes the Agent an easier target for any enemy sharpshooters who happen to see their Spiderman impression. However, if that new Agent can scale even a few of these Skyscrapers, the top-tier Agility Orbs waiting at the top represent massive experience point gains.

This level design creates one of the most intuitive progression systems an open-world game has ever implemented. The difficulty of the islands is instantly communicated to the player, even from the other side of the map. The game doesn’t need to implement bullet sponge enemies to scale difficulty, but instead makes the traversal of the environment, something much more intuitive to visually parse than whether Dude With Gun X is stronger than Dude With Gun Y. It also means that a player’s increase in skills have a very tangible effect on gameplay: instead of just “the numbers go up”, the players can see themselves fly over buildings they once had to scale, reminiscent of a superhero.

Crackdown 2, in my opinion, perfects this progression by offering a pair of wonderful, natural rewards at the end of this journey: the Wingsuit, and helicopters. The Wingsuit allows players to glide deftly through the air, moreso the higher the building they jump off of is, creating a natural progression. You’ve spent the whole game getting better at climbing buildings, and the Wingsuit gives you something new to do when you get to the top of one. The helicopters, available only on a helipad which requires a massive leap to get to, provides another natural end state: you’ve spent the game getting closer and closer to feeling like flying, so what if we let you actually fly.

So. Agility Orbs facilitate a set of soft skill barriers in the world, giving players an implied path of least resistance through the world while still letting them venture into dangerous territory for high rewards. They provide a means of progression that is far more tangible than just “your numbers go higher”, and feed directly into the game’s core ethos as a power fantasy.

There is one problem, though.

Crackdown fans probably can already guess what I’m going to say, but those of who you haven’t played the series might be reading all of this talk about running and jumping and gliding and say “wait, didn’t you say this series has cars?”

You’d be forgiven for forgetting, because I’ve played all three Crackdown games and frequently forget myself. Many games that emphasize unique or interesting traversal mechanics suffer this problem: the cars in Saints Row IV are notoriously useless, and Infamous and Prototype just throw them out entirely, not even letting you get into one. In Crackdown, however, Driving is a skill just like Agility, and it’s handled, well, worse.

For one thing, running and jumping and gliding through the city is just more fun than driving. This alone is a huge problem, but it gets worse. In an effect to mirror the “tangible skill growth” of Agility, Driving causes the handling of every car you get into to improve with every level of Driving you accomplish, but the implication of this is the death knell for Driving: when you’re low-level, at the earliest stages in the game, the cars handle like garbage.

This creates a sort of feedback loop in player progression. At the start of the game, cars are clumsy and kind of hard to control, while the player character themselves, while slower than their maximum potential, is still responsive and fun to control. This encourages the new player to focus on Agility, and after they’ve done so for a while and their Agility score eclipses their Driving, the player has less and less desire to go back and start again from square one with Driving. Combine this with the fact that many of the story and optional objectives in Crackdown games are located in and around skyscrapers (that is, inaccessible by cars), and none of the other skills can be used effectively in concert with Driving (you can’t really punch someone while driving), and Driving is frequently neglected entirely.

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Crackdown 2 partially mitigated this by filling the streets of the city with zombies to run over, but it still wasn’t, like, great.

There is one good nugget of design in Crackdown‘s cars, specifically the cars of the first Crackdown. While the Agent is free to hijack any car in the city, there was a suite of three special Agency cars that could be deployed. Not only did these cars handle better with higher Driving, they physically transformed, offering that tangible sense of progression as what was once just “a pretty good sportscar” morphs into “off-brand Batmobile” as you get into it.

I’ve been using the word “tangibility” a lot, and I think that’s the big takeaway from Crackdown. Progression is often the key hook that keeps players playing a game, and there’s been a lot of ways that progression has been done. I’d be foolish to say that “the numbers go up” isn’t an effective strategy (the golden age of clickers and loot games we’re currently in proves as much), but games like Crackdown show that designers can look beyond the balancing of equations to more immediate methods of making a player feel empowered as they grow within a game.

Building Stronger Supporting Casts By Setting Them Free

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There’s a common idiosyncrasy pointed out about video games with any amount of non-linearity, which is that the player’s propensity to goof off frequently contradicts the in-universe drive of the protagonist to accomplish their goals. Shepard wastes his time in the club instead of saving the universe, the Dragonborn runs around collecting cheese wheels instead of stopping armageddon, the Sole Survivor pretends to be a superhero instead of finding their son, etc. While this is usually handwaved by lamenting the natural contradiction between having a narrative with tension, and offering players choice, a corollary question emerges: what the hell are your companions doing?

A decent number of games offer the player an ensemble of companion characters, NPCs who you can drag along with you on your assorted adventures, a second set of guns and a sort of Roman chorus chiming in on whatever you’re doing. Usually, these characters are given strong personalities, deep backstories, and goals of their own. All of this makes it all the more demeaning that, in most of these games, these characters become attached at the hip to the player character, being dragged along on whatever dumb garbage the player wants to do. This is completely contradictory to their written character; it makes them feel like some combination of uncaring about their own goals, the player’s babysitters, and servants to the players’ whim.

I only really started to think about this when I recently started to play Far Cry 2. A game who’s whole M.O is “the player doesn’t matter”, Far Cry 2 has a “Buddy” system that on first blush resembles these companion systems, but which has an interesting twist. When you meet a Buddy, they thank you for your help, pledge their services in the future, and leave. They go off into the African wilderness to … do whatever it is that they’re going to do. Probably some flavor of war crime.

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This isn’t to say they vanish. Rather, they instead intersect with your story at its most interesting moments. They reappear for most story missions, offering their own wrinkles based in their own goals (“Hey, as long as you’re in this area, you mind taking out a target for me?”), and sometimes when you’re killed in combat, instead a Buddy comes charging in to save you.

This was fascinating to me, and made me realize that video game companions who stick around through the entire game are a lot like anyone else who you spend a prolonged period of time around: at some point, you just run out of stuff to talk about. Their story, at least for the duration of the game, is yours, because they’re at your side the whole time. All you can get is chunks of backstory and character-revealing dialogue, but the character is rendered passive by their role as your new shadow. Filling out this character’s backstory requires a combination of them oversharing about their life, and them commenting on every little thing the player does (assuming the player is doing anything worth commenting).

By contrast, the Far Cry 2 buddies are interesting in the negative space of their lives. Because you only intersect with their lives briefly, you end up naturally interested in what you don’t see. Why is Flora suddenly a target for kidnapping by the UFLL? What was Paul doing in this desert before he happened across me bleeding out in the sand? It’s reminiscent of when you swap characters in Grand Theft Auto V, popping into one of the protagonist’s lives in the middle of a scene or moment: the unknown of what was happening just before the camera panned in on them makes the player wonder, and that wonder makes the character interesting.

A similar idea is put into effect (heh) in the Mass Effect trilogy. The selection of characters who are actually aboard the Normandy and available for missions varies over the trilogy, but those characters are still in the world when they exit the team, so they’re given some time out of the spotlight to pursue their own goals. This can be jarring at times, such as Liara’s 180 degree turn from naive and curious to stone-cold bureaucrat, but other times it means characters are given a chance to grow and be their own heroes, like Jack’s turn from “vengeful psychopath” to a mentor-like figure. Other characters, whose identities and arcs are strongly rooted in the culture they come from, like Wrex, Grunt, and Legion, are given a chance to reintegrate with those cultures and be changed by them, or to change them. This could never happen if these characters were permanently aboard the Normandy, just playing ping pong between missions.

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Being side-by-side with a companion character for an entire game feels a lot like a John Mulaney bit from his newest special Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, in which he describes having so run out of topics of conversation with his mother that, desperate for anything, he just blurts out “Do you believe in ghosts?” These companion characters in video games are similarly suffocated by the need to be an interesting character for up to eighty hours. However, I think some writers have taken to an almost Hitchcockian approach to writing companion characters, wherein they are decoupled from the character and are given some time out of the limelight, which allows them to grow, act, and shape the world, free from the bungee cord tying them to the player’s waist.

This also ties into that idiosyncrasy I mentioned at the front: by letting companion characters loose from the main cast for a spell, they are able to complete their goals without the player opting in to them, which, from a narrative design perspective, means they’re allowed to have goals unrelated to, or even against, those of the player. A player would be hard-pressed to pursue a companion quest which actively sabotaged them, but having a loyal companion disappear from the cast, only to reappear having chosen their own goals and loyalties over their loyalty and friendship with the player, would be an interesting moment, both for the character and the player.

Untethering companion characters from the protagonist allows them to become more interesting by way of the unseen moments of their lives, and offers narrative designers new opportunities for character development that just aren’t possible when companions are chasing the heels of the player character.

Hitman 2 Is A Master Class of Teaching Your Player

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Hitman? More like Hot Man, am I right? Hubba hubba!

At first blush, Hitman 2, much like its 2016 predecessor, looks like a brutal, dark, serious game of international assassins, a game in which a coldly-calculating murderer executes his targets with violent precision, a la John Wick. Once you begin playing the game, this falls away for a truer picture, one in which Hitman 2 is a black comedy, a game in which a stern-faced man in a flamingo costume hurls a screwdriver into a target’s face before running away like a child. Beneath all of this, though, Hitman 2 is a machine, a coldly complex piece of mechanical clockwork which is imposing and constrictive to the new player, and a familiar toy to the veteran.

Hitman 2 is perhaps more accurately considered Season 2 of 2016’s Hitman, with mechanical improvements being good, but relatively minor. Basically everything I’m about to say about it can also be said of its predecessor, but 2 is worthy of ultimate praise because, for one, it contains all of Hitman as an easily-imported expansion, and on top of that, the cleverness shown in Hitman 2‘s additional levels shows further mastery of the formula.

The Hitman formula is a three step procedure, mapping pretty cleanly to the classically considered experience levels of novice, learning, and mastery. What you’re doing in Hitman 2 is fundamentally the same in hour 1 as it is in hour 100: there are some folks, on a map, that you need to kill and get away. Generally, it’s always the same folks, and it’s always the same maps.

We can specifically divide this process into two fundamental steps, which for ultra-cool Hitman-style minimalism I’m going to call cause and effect. Cause is the procedure the player takes, the positioning and preparation of the game elements across the map, including the player themselves, in precisely the state desired by the player. Get your target to this room, make this guard throw up, be standing right here in this outfit. This is all for the intended effect, the crowning moment of action, the kill. All murders are not equal in the eyes of the ICA, so specific kills will grant specific rewards based on the game’s Challenges and scoring system. Explosives, while bombastic and effective, are generally worth less than more subtle kills.

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When you enter a given level of Hitman 2 for the first time, as a novice, the game heavily nudges you to follow what it calls Mission Stories: guided, waypoint-laden paths to victory. In this way, Mission Stories give new players cause and effect. The waypoints helpfully lead the player from key step to key step, from obtaining outfits to getting key items to laying traps, and generally, once concluding, leave players in an ideal position for an effect: this leaves the target alone leaning over a rooftop railing, or in front of an inconspicuous explosive, and it’s just up to you to push the final domino. The player is given some wiggle room, but generally speaking the entire plan is laid bare.

Once the player has grown beyond Mission Stories, they enter the learning step of Hitman 2. This is when they begin directly interacting with the game’s Challenge system, and in this phase, the game lays out effect, but not cause. Players know that they should kill a target by, say, dropping an elaborate light fixture on their head, incentivized by a pile of experience points as a reward, but the game doesn’t tell them how. It’s up to the player to go into the level and study, and learn the cause. When does the target walk under a chandelier? Do they do so in their unaffected loop, or does the player need to do something to reroute them. Where can the player drop the chandelier without being seen?

The player is forced to analyze the same target from multiple perspectives to complete different challenges, constantly trying to parse the same fundamental machine for moments where it can be forced into a desired state, and thus, increasing player understanding of the machine as a whole.

The final stage of Hitman 2‘s progression, the level of mastery, comes in the form of the game’s toughest Challenges. These Challenges singularly specify cause. To claim the most difficult bounties, the game suddenly becomes extremely focused on a player’s ability to plan: don’t be seen, don’t cause any collateral damage, never change costume. The game’s Escalations do this as well, and the result is some of the game’s most satisfying challenges.

Forced into a challenging playstyle, master players must figure out how to make the kill work. Where in the map can I get into without the security clearance of different costumes? How can I avoid security cameras, and if I can’t, how can I wipe the footage? Previously, the player had some flexibility in how they could get the proverbial machine to work, even if it required some shoving or well timed hits, or in this case, a few witnesses, a few dead bystanders. No more with this sort of play: the player has to follow the rules of the machine to a T.

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To imagine this complexity mapped to a more universal activity, imagine this progression in the context of cooking. The Mission Stories are, in effect, following a recipe. You’re given an ingredient list, told what to do with them, and told what they’re gonna be in the end. The main Challenge loop represents freestyling a recipe: you know what you wanna make, and you’ve done this enough that you generally know what goes in it and how to prepare it, but you maybe are making informed guesses to the specifics. You’ll probably need to experiment a few times, try different spice blends, let things cook for longer or shorter, add things in a different sequence. Mastery is just looking in a pantry, maybe one that isn’t even yours, and throwing something together out of what you have, with little control on your ingredients, just how you use them. This is, after all, the premise of most competitive cooking shows, a la Iron Chef. Restaurant chefs face similar challenges: we need to get rid of these ingredients before they go bad, we need to have something that cooks this fast, we need something to fit this gap on the menu.

Even more fundamentally, imagine it like this: first, give the player a hammer and a nail. Then, give the player a nail, and force them to find a hammer, or something suitably close. Finally, give the player a hammer, and force them to consider how the challenge in front of them is like a nail.

I think this fundamental progression pattern can, and should, be pulled out and utilized in other games, even games with more traditional level- or mission- based progression, because the satisfaction for the player of learning and mastering systems is so much greater when the player is neither just handed all of the solutions, or given absolute freedom without guidance, but is instead gently led down the path of progressing from one to the other.

Consider that some of the best games use this design pattern for micro-systems within their games. For example, consider the individual Sheikah Slate powers in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. When they’re introduced, they’re given to the player in relatively constrained settings with obvious solutions (cause and effect provided). As the player goes out and explores the world, they learn how to use the abilities in concert to achieve new desired effects (for example, using Magnesis to complete electric circuits). The best of the best players use these abilities in speedruns, using their understanding of them to beat the game under constrained conditions (specifically, under a certain time).

When designing any system for a game, from an individual item to the entire main gameplay loop, consider implementing this hammer and nail -> nail -> hammer arc, which can be as simple as tuning incentive structures to encourage this progression. It’s a fantastic way to balance a player’s desire to know what’s going on, and the rewarding feeling of discovery.