Backlog Burnout: Shadowrun Anarchy

Shadowrun is a weird beast. It is arguably the most well-known cyberpunk tabletop RPG (at least, until Cyberpunk 2077 made a bunch of video game nerds well aware of Cyberpunk, but I have gripes with Cyberpunk), but it’s also weird: eschewing a traditional cyberpunk setting, Shadowrun describes a world in which magic and technology coexist. In this world, orcs, elves, and humans coexist, and characters can elect to load themselves up with cybernetics and technology, or channel their magical abilities to become a potent mage or shaman. Characters might need to hack into advanced computer systems in order to collect leverage on an ancient dragon, except instead of sitting on a hoard of gold, that dragon is CEO of a mutlinational tech conglomerate.

The common sentiment of the internet on Shadowrun is a love for the setting, which is a bananas genre fusion of spellslinging and gunslinging, but a general dislike for, if not fear of, the rules. Shadowrun is notoriously pretty dense with rules, with multi-step procedures for basic tasks like firing a gun or casting a spell that requires so much number crunching and dice-chucking that it’s just too much work. So, in a pretty smart move, Catalyst released a rules-light port of Shadowrun called Shadowrun Anarchy.

Before I talk about Anarchy, I want to talk a little bit about what I want from Shadowrun as a mechanical framework. I’ve only ever run the Third Edition of the game, the last to be put out by FASA before the license changed hands to Catalyst, but from what I understand the following sentiment still generally holds true.

For me, Shadowrun‘s crunch was the cost to entry for a game that leans heavily into the natural narrative arc we usually associate with heist fiction: characters receive an objective, spend a large quantity of time preparing for that mission, then execute, along the way reacting to unanticipated twists and failures as they come. Many of the points of friction people experience with the system can be understood as subservient to this idea of narrative. The game’s near-pornographic obsession with specificity on the character sheet creates a fidelity that lets players feel like they’ve prepared precisely for the job at hand, turning every mission into the players’ own Ocean’s Eleven. There’s a joy to be had in this sort of meticulous planning: learning that your extraction target is Belgian and being able to take some character ranks of French, loading up on armor piercing rounds after scouting a corp’s heavily armored troll security, loading up on parachutes (and double checking the fall damage rules) in case you need to make a quick exit from a corporate high-rise.

Similarly, the game’s dice mechanics ensured that even the most well-laid plans ran the risk of going off the rails at any moment. Shadowrun‘s notorious dice pools involved players throwing down a comical amount of d6s (frequently a double digit amount) and counting successes among them. These dice rolls then incur a series of checks, and chances for response by the target, which add in a layer of unpredictability. Dice rolls in Shadowrun are rarely cut-and-dry success and failure, as the game on the mechanical level is always looking to slip in wrinkles and caveats. Yes, you had dead aim while shooting this guy, but he exerted himself completely to jump out of the way. No, you weren’t able to dodge that baseball bat, but you’re so beefy with your cybernetic implants that the bat crumples upon hitting your skin. Yeah, you threw a fireball, but you threw it too good, and now the whole block is on fire.

Unfortunately, in Third Edition, these checks on every dice roll to see how and why specific actions are wrinkled or subverted in interesting directions also require a lot of number crunching. To fire a gun at someone on Third Edition is a seven-step procedure, involving a meticulous calculation of range and checking of modifiers and gun attributes, actually firing the gun, checking if the defender dodges, checking if the defender resists the damage, and staging up or down the effects of the shot depending on outcomes. Dice need to be rolled up to three different times in order to calculate if an attack lands. Compare that to D&D, where an attacker rolls once, usually just a single die, compares the result to a static number, then bam you’re done, and this system looks… fiddly.

All this to say, while I like Third Edition’s resolution system, I mostly like it as a consequence of liking the narrative moments it produces, moments where things can always go wrong at the last minute and unpredictability seeps into every moment. There’s fun to be had in watching a system you meticulously planned working, and there’s also fun to be had in a plan going off rails and improvising. If your extraction target is Flemish, not Walloon, and those trolls are actually wearing heavier armor than you expect, and those high-rise windows are double reinforced, you need to improvise on the fly. If a light system like Shadowrun Anarchy can replicate that feeling without the corresponding math homework, I’m more than happy letting my Third Edition rulebooks gather dust for a while, especially since most of my current groups generally dislike crunchy combat rules. Does it do that? Well, I think it tries, but I don’t think it succeeds.

Anarchy‘s dice system, which is an adapted form of the Cue System, is a sort of trimmed-down version of what I’m used to in Third Edition: a character and their opposition rolls a set of dice pools at the same time, counts successes, most successes wins, and any successes you get over what you need occasionally incurs a boon, almost always increased damage, but sometimes the vague “something else good”. I generally don’t love this vagueness; it can be hard to quantify on the spot how much of a boon I should hand out given a number of excess successes (“You won this Speech check with 3 excess successes, so you convince him…. three better?”). I always ran into this issue with a similar system of Advantages running Genesys, and always gasped for relief when the game provided clear tangible rewards I could hand out for a given number of successes. But, hey, we have a framework for unpredictability, and the action-counteraction process of earlier has been reduced down into a simple dice roll, I’m down. (I should note this is also basically how dice rolls work in the current, Sixth Edition of the game).

Unfortunately, with these simplified rules comes a corresponding lack of fidelity, which is where my problems with Anarchy arise. Let’s continue looking at the process of shooting a gun, which in Anarchy, is bog simple. You roll your weapon skill, the defender rolls their Agility, compare who got more successes, whoever got more wins, bam, you’re done. Here, the solution is also the problem: there are very few knobs to tweak here, very few moving parts in this calculation, and as a result, all relevant modifiers to this roll, all relevant preparation, all basically has to affect this one roll. Whether you’ve got a full-auto assault rifle firing flaming bullets at a moving car, a precision sniper rifle with a thermal scope firing at a target on a foggy day, or a knife soaked in poison trying to slip in the ribs of a target in a kevlar vest, all any of this stuff can really do is increase the number of dice on one side or decrease the number of dice on another. Mechanically, all of these narratively interesting things have the exact same effect.

As a result, Shadowrun Anarchy seems to deeply dissuade preparation, the construction of the plan, or half of the heist-like formula I talked about loving so much. Choosing the right tool for the job doesn’t matter anymore, because all of the little ways you can prepare, things like gun attachments and environmental bonuses and careful target selection and the billion other little factors you were paying attention to before, all fundamentally do the same thing mechanically, so you just want to pile on as much good stuff as you can, try and stack your side of the one relevant dice roll as high as you can with little consideration how you do it. The book itself seems to reinforce this idea: while normal Shadowrun offers a veritable Sears catalogue of guns, spells, equipment, skills, and anything else you could need, Anarchy gives you a scant couple pages. After all, if all shooting is in the game is comparing your Gun number versus someone else’s Not Get Shot number, who really cares what kind of gun you’re holding.

Now, this reduced possibility space for preparation is actually the side-effect of another fairly large change, one which I think is a far more concrete example of Anarchy‘s reduced emphasis on player planning: Shadowrun Anarchy implicitly assumes that players will not create characters, instead offering a bank of 30ish premade characters designed to be picked by players and brought into the game. There are rules for character creation, but they are buried fairly late in the text and most rules text explicitly refers to the use of these premades, so their use is pretty easily read as the default state of play. On some level, I feel like a little girl playing with dolls. In normal Shadowrun, I get to pick out the doll, choose the outfit I want for it, maybe some accessories, articulate it into the pose I want. In Anarchy, I’m instead given a set of dolls cast from a single piece of plastic: the clothes don’t change, the pose doesn’t change, you can’t make it your own, all I can do is pick the one I want and hope whatever story we’re playing today uses the exact way this doll was made.

Shadowrun Anarchy isn’t for me. If I want a rules-light game that still creates mechanical space for each dice roll to produce unexpected consequences, Genesys does that in a more interesting way by decoupling the creation of positive and negative side-effects from the outcome of a roll (that is, a successful roll can still have bad side-effects, and vice versa). Hell, if I want a mission-based game that cuts dramatically down on prep time and character fiddlyness, Blades In The Dark is easy to hack, and still allows players the narrative satisfaction of successful planning by playing with the chronology of the story, framing planning as a series of just-in-time flashbacks rather than a laborious prerequisite to a mission.

Not to say Anarchy is for no one. I think if you don’t care as much about the heist-style narrative framework as I do, and want to focus on a more improvisational, off-the-cuff style story where cool characters can just be cool, Anarchy is totally sufficient. On top of that, its extremely minimalist rules framework means that the system can handle Shadowrun‘s bonkers setting with minimal mechanical overhead. A traditional Shadowrun party can include a spirit-summoning sorcerer, a hacker who extends their consciousness into the internet, a rigger remote controlling a series of drones and vehicles, and a soldier-for-hire loaded with guns and cybernetics, and the fact that all of these concepts run on basically the same rules in Anarchy makes it really easy to run a game that has all of these bonkers ideas in it that isn’t loaded down in edge cases. Plus, the game has a decent primer for Shadowrun‘s setting relatively unencumbered with the baggage of 30 years of plot developments, plus a deep dive into my home of Seattle as it exists in the setting that has tons of details to mine.

I’m a bit bummed that Shadowrun Anarchy isn’t for me, but it did get me thinking a lot about complexity. Especially in the modern design space for RPGs, complexity is something we tend to abhor; the current design movements (the OSR, PbtA, Forged In The Dark) are exceptionally rules-light and focused on abstraction over fidelity. However, I think there’s something to be said for the thought that some ideas require a baseline amount of complexity to come across, and that the boons of complexity in game design are similar to those of complexity of real-life, namely a feeling of mastery and satisfaction in growing to understand complexity. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too averse to designing complex games, since some games can use that complexity as an instrument to a final design with the same precision that many games use simplicity.

Backlog Burnout: BALIKBAYAN: Returning Home

I don’t know why I put dice in this picture, this game is diceless lol.

//Quick Note: As of time of writing, BALIKBAYAN is currently in beta and being actively playtested, so depending on when you read this, some of what I say here might be bunk! Probably not the part where I say the game is good, though. The game’s good.

BALIKBAYAN: Returning Home by Jamila R. Nedjadi of Sword Queen Games is a game that ultimately confronted me with two points of embarrassment: the first being that I’d somehow gone three years without reading the Belonging Outside Belonging engine as codified in 2018’s Dream Askew/Dream Apart, and the second being that I’d gone 24 years without knowing really much of anything about the Philippines or Filipino culture. I don’t bring this up to publicly self-flagellate for my lack of knowledge (although I should definitely know more than I do about the Philippines), but instead to say that BALIKBAYAN is a game that deals heavily in Filipino mythology and the modern culture of the Philippines, but I am not going to speak to either the way it deploys those ideas or the deeper connections it draws simply because I am by no means qualified to comment on that.

What I can say is to instead follow the creator (@temporalhiccup) on Twitter, check out the contributions and contributors to Filipino-centric game jams like the Hilagyo Jam, and to follow the #RPGSEA hashtag on Twitter to find tons of amazing creators, contributors, and players from the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the rest of the incredible Southeast Asian tabletop RPG scene. This post up on EN World seems like a good curated list to start with. Listen to what these creators have to say, look at what they’re making. Alternatively, if you want to know a bit more about BALIKBAYAN itself, I highly recommend checking out this excellent interview with the designer over on Brie Beau Sheldon’s site.

Also worth noting: BALIKBAYAN: Returning Home was in that big-ass Racial Justice and Equality bundle that was put out a few months ago, so if you bought that, you already have this excellent game.

As I mentioned previously, BALIKBAYAN is a game in the Belonging Outside Belonging engine as codified in Dream Askew/Dream Apart. This system is diceless and, as written in the Dreams, GMless, although BALIKBAYAN provides for both GMless and GM-driven modes of play. The core mode of action of this engine, rather than the declare-dice roll-result loop most games feature, instead implies a sort of cyclical motion of story through Strong, Neutral, and Weak Moves. Strong Moves are moments in which the players drive the narrative forward, with characters shining and their goals being achieved, but these moves cost a Token. Meanwhile, Weak Moves represent the antagonistic forces of the story taking control and players failing and being driven back, but invoking one of these moves earns you a Token. Neutral Moves, as the name implies, are kind of a mixed-bag as far as narrative effect, and are sort of implied to be the connective tissue that links narrative highs and lows together, with the book explicitly warning against an over-reliance on them.

With this mechanism, one can easily imagine a sort of pendulum motion imbued into the narrative, the Moves being a sort of framework that the story grows around in which players accrue Tokens by inviting misery upon their characters, only to later triumph by cashing in those Tokens. In this framework, good things always follow bad things, and bad things always follow good things, which is an interesting way to create a sort of rhythm to the story, and seemingly would create a sort of mixed tone which feels appropriate both for the aesthetic of cyberpunk and for the narrative of fighting on the back foot against a seemingly omnipotent threat from on high, the colonizing power of The Corp.

In traditional dice-based games, this cadence is usually loosely enforced by dice probabilities. In a Powered by the Apocalypse game, an unmodified dice roll yields triumph about 15% of the time, failure about 40% of the time, and a mixed result about 45% of the time, but the rhythm with which the narrative moves between these three tones is dictated only by probability. The results of a single dice roll, obviously, in no way influences the results of the next, and while one would expect the results of rolls to eventually resemble the above probabilities over a sufficient number of rolls, sometimes probability is an asshole, and you end up with a run of dismal failures or grand successes in a row.

The Belonging Outside Belonging system, on the other hand, takes a much more direct grasp on the cadence of the story, with each Move absolutely impacting the results of the next, as Weak Moves naturally lead to Strong Moves, and Strong Moves similarly lead to Weak Moves. The system does skew in favor of narrative highs through Lures, narrative cues each playbook provides which can grant players additional Tokens by leaning into their fellow characters’ narrative roles. With the complete elimination of randomness from the system, Belonging Outside Belonging takes a pretty direct control over the tone of the story in a way I find deeply interesting, and in turn players assume absolute control over their characters: they succeed whenever the player wants them to succeed, and fail when the player permit them fail. This might be romanticism from me, but I do find myself enjoying the moments where my characters “surprise” me by doing something unexpected, as driven by the randomness of dice, but I think losing this in favor of direct control of the plot does promote the idea of players as storytellers rather than mere agents within the setting, an idea which is literally true in the GMless gameplay mode, in which all players share control of the story.

While Moves provide the small-scale narrative framework, Reckoning and Homecoming provide the large-scale framework. In the world of BALIKBAYAN, players are from a society of elementals, one which once helped humanity willingly but was eventually subjugated and enslaved by the humans, as represented by the all-consuming Corp. The player characters begin the story having escaped their shackles, and are now loose in the City that is their ancestral home. The campaign is essentially framed as a race between Reckoning, a tracker which, once filled, will represent the characters being re-enslaved by the Corp and the status quo of subjugation being re-established, and Homecoming, a tracker which, once filled, represents the elementals reigniting their magical power and finally striking down the Corp.

The completion of either of these trackers is an end state for the entire campaign although, interestingly, both end states describe a player character going off to rekindle the losing faction in the future. In this way, the game seems to refuse the absolution of both success and failure. In the event of failure, the spark of revolution still lives on despite the Corp’s reasserted power, which is a common thematic beat in stories of squashed rebellion. Far more interesting to me, however, is the inverse truth: every victory against the Corp is necessarily incomplete, as a player character stabs their peers in the back and slinks off to rebuild the Corp anew.

Then again, it doesn’t mention how the Corp is rebuilt, so I suppose while one reading of this mechanic is that the fight against subjugation is endless, and the evils of the world will never be truly defeated, another, perhaps more interesting reading is that we can’t destroy those structures that oppress us, but instead we can change them, rebuild them into something fundamentally new, fundamentally good. There is always a Corp, but maybe we can make the Corp good?

Reckoning and Homecoming, along with the Filipino influence, are what I think sets BALIKBAYAN‘s narratives apart from other cyberpunk RPGs. Shadowrun, the closest relative I can think of to BALIKBAYAN as a cyberpunk game set in a world filled with magic, strongly emphasizes player characters sort of coasting through their world, acknowledging that this is a fundamentally broken setting but instead promoting a mode of play in which player characters generally focus on surviving and maintaining a quality of life in this status quo. Meanwhile, many of the greatest cyberpunk stories, stories like Neuromancer and Count Zero, Blade Runner 2049, and Ghost In The Shell emphasize an inevitable change to the status quo, with the characters, intentionally or not, reshaping the world. Much like BALIKBAYAN, these stories end the moment the scales are finally tipped, and the world changes from an old form to a new one.

With Reckoning and Homecoming, BALIKBAYAN enforces the idea that the characters in this world are not allowed to coast, and the status quo is not allowed to be maintained. At the end of a BALIKBAYAN campaign, either the Corp is destroyed and the elementals ascend to a new, empowered state of being, or the players are destroyed, re-shackled to an empowered Corp. These two tracks are naturally progressed through normal play, with triggers that would be hard to avoid in natural play. One of these two states, BALIKBAYAN states through its rules, is inevitable, if impermanent. To keep the world the same is an unsustainable state

Ultimately, BALIKBAYAN is a game that absolutely has my mind spinning with possibilities. The way this game directly takes grasp of the story in a way a randomness-based game simply cannot is extremely interesting, and the cyclic nature of the story BALIKBAYAN tells on both its personal and setting scales makes me look at cyberpunk as a genre in a new and different way. On top of all of this, BALIKBAYAN gave me something else: a starting point in Filipino folklore, a folklore that, simply by not being the Tolkien-esqe pan-European fantasy or one of the few world mythologies fetishized by the West (Greek, Norse, Egyptian), I have never really run into in the hobby before. I feel like I can take the elements this game draws from the folklore, the Tikbalang and the Aswang and others, and use those to start delving into this body of stories, a prospect that has me more than a bit excited.

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Backlog Burnout: Quest

Quest, the first tabletop RPG from NYC-based The Adventure Guild, is an extremely exciting game to finally get my hands on. Everything about Quest, from its mechanics to presentation to the game’s website all the way back to the game’s (extremely Brooklyn) Kickstarter video speaks to a design philosophy of bringing new players into RPGs and creating a streamlined experience through minimalism. This can be quickly literally seen by flipping through the (gorgeous) rulebook and seeing how much the layout allows the text on the page to breathe with plenty of negative space, a start contrast to many RPG books which indulge in a sort of maximalist information design.

Flipping through Quest, the single most striking thing about its design is the near complete omission of, for lack of a better word, numbers. Despite clearly drawing on the tradition of fantasy RPGs going back to Dungeons and Dragons, Quest completely lacks stats. Dice rolls are unencumbered by any sort of modifiers: you roll 1d20, 20 is a triumphant success, 11-19 is a modest success, 6-10 is a conditional success, 2-5 is a failure, and 1 is a catastrophic failure. That’s it for literally every dice roll in the game.

Most of what one might consider the “standard” items on a character sheet are either completely omitted or streamlined. Characters just start out with 10 HP, period. A quick rest can top you off to half HP, a night’s rest can put you back at max. There’s no money: all items are either trivial enough for you to just get whenever you’re in town, or important/rare enough for you to have to barter for them. Abilities, magical or otherwise, draw from a pool of Adventure Points which players get at the end of a session but also can earn as a GM metacurrency for good roleplay, solving a tricky puzzle, accomplishing a goal, or just being a good table presence. Your inventory is 12 things that can reasonably fit on your person, no concern for encumbrance mechanics or weight calculation, just, 12 things.

The meat of what makes up a Quest character are abilities obtained from the role selected for the character (logically equivalent to a class in D&D). Each role’s abilities are categorized into 5ish learning paths, which usually have 3-5 abilities per path. Abilities in a learning path must be learned in a certain sequence (the third ability in a path can only be learned after you learn the second, which can only be learned after you learn the first), but you are free to take abilities from multiple paths. You create a character with 6 abilities to start with, then you gain a new one at the end of every session. There are no experience points, in what I think is an extremely good move (XP systems, in my experience, are the first things jettisoned from a system in actual play, in favor of narrative-based advancement rewards).

Looking through the abilities is where a lot of Quest‘s minimalism and dismissal of numbers comes to light, and where the spoils of that design philosophy come through. So many advancement systems in RPGs are rife with obnoxious, incremental enhancements to a character, choices that give a character +10% to this or a +3 modifier to that. In Quest, there is nothing to increment, so these sorts of choices in character development literally aren’t an option. As best I can tell, not a single effect or item in the game grants a modifier to dice rolls, either. Almost every single advancement a character can make details a new action that the character can take in the fiction, a whole new problem-solving avenue unlocked for them. Even the Fighter, whipping boy of the genre and notorious landfill for minor statistical buffs in other, bulkier RPGs, gets a whole slew of new abilities, and the Fighter’s increased aptitude in combat is represented by automatic successes for attack roles rather than statistical boons.

One of my (few and small) gripes with Quest are the few times it does bring calculation or detailed resource management into the rules, because with so little math in the entire game it makes the few bastions of hard number-tracking stick out all the more. A few abilities are given durations in real time (rather than more abstract measurements like “scene” or “fight”), some down to minutes, and I can only imagine players immediately bickering about how many hits they can sneak into the one minute an enemy is stunned or frozen, a dispute that the rules can’t adjudicate since little else in the game is given a duration in real time. Similarly, many of the Doctor’s abilities only work on the toughest class of enemies when they are below 20% health, which I can only imagine playing out in one of three ways:

  1. The Doctor just has to guess when the enemy is down to 1/5 life, risking whiffing the ability and wasting the AP if they guess wrong
  2. The Doctor has to nag the GM after every bit of damage to see precisely when they can use all their cool powers
  3. The GM has to commit to announcing any time a boss character drops beneath 20% health, either out of character or by weaving it into the narration in a manner that still reads as “Yeah he’s beneath the threshold”

Option 3 seems like the clear winner to me, and I wonder why the game didn’t commit to its no-number-crunching design and steer players away from terrible options 1 and 2 by codifying it in the rules, perhaps with a “Bloodied” state a la 4E which is declared by the GM.

Another thing Quest does that I like a lot are the legendary abilities. Each role has a few of these, many of them world-altering powers, and they are explicitly inaccessible via traditional character progression. Instead, the game requires characters perform some sort of appropriate feat in-fiction that grants them this power, and I absolutely love this system. Tying character progression to an in-universe event that justifies that progression is an idea I’ve always adored, ever since AD&D required 11th level Druids go find and beat up one of the nine 12th level Druids out in the world in order to claim their rank and level up. It’s fun, it’s cool to do, and it gives players a built-in motivation that can be used by the GM to draw them into an adventure.

Another thing I noticed reading Quest was a lot more subtle. In a lot of RPGs, intentionally or not, I find that the character sheet usually ends up subconsciously dividing into two groups: there’s the soft character sheet, things like name, background, physical description, the bits that the rules don’t actually touch in any meaningful way but are important narratively, and there’s the hard character sheet, things like stats and skills and damage numbers, the things that the rules of the game interacts with directly. Generally, the soft character sheet tends to be something of an afterthought for a lot of players, something they fill in either at random, by half-heartedly scanning a random table, or maybe even filling in as the game goes.

Meanwhile, Quest kind of lacks the “hard” character sheet entirely. Essentially the only remnants of that part of the character sheet are the selection of a role and abilities. Other than that, your HP, your AP, your gear for the most part, are all set by the game. As a result, most of the choices you do get to make when making a Quest character are things that typically land on the “soft” character sheet: your appearance, your goal, your beliefs, your weaknesses. Filling out these aspects of your character gets a lot of real estate in the book, and the simple truth that filling out these aspects is most of the autonomy you get over the character during creation means that these aspects of the character feel far more important than in other games. It’s a clever trick, but these now feel like the heart of the character, the true identity of them, rather than the sort of narrative outfit covering up the character’s “true” being, a collection of numbers and stats that the game’s mechanics actually use.

Quest is an infinitely interesting game. It feels very different from a lot of other minimalist RPGs, such as those that self-categorize as in the OSR. In many ways, those games, games like The Black Hack, MÖRK BORG, or Maze Rats, feel like distillations of the classic D&D feel: eight stats are reduced to three, combat rules are simplified, equipment lists are shortened. Quest, on the other hand, is a straight reduction. Where other games are like D&D put on a rigorous diet and personal training regimen, Quest feels like a surgeon made some very careful cuts with a scalpel to remove every system the game could survive without, removing them entirely and returning their narrative function back to the act of raw storytelling. Going forward, I’d love to run Quest and actually see it in action, because I imagine it’s probably one of the purest storytelling experiences I could have with a game in my collection. I’m also curious to see if its minimalism can be applied in smaller doses; if specific subsystems of an RPG that risk becoming fiddly can be simply extracted from the design entirely, but still leave the core of the game relatively traditional. Also interesting to me would be what other games you could build from scratch with this sort of framework, games with extremely lightweight mechanics where character differentiation and ability mostly come from choosing from a veritable Costco of character options.

Oh, actually, one last note, Quest has an open license for creators to fiddle with Quest and make content for it, and in that license include a set of design guidelines that Quest was designed around, tips on how fiddling with specific parts of the rules will impact the game as a whole, and even a typography and style guide! Good stuff! More of this in games, please!

All very interesting indeed. Quest will happily stay in my collection, and I hope I get to run it someday soon.

Quest can be purchased directly from The Adventure Guild here.

Announcing Backlog Burnout

So, if there’s one thing I’m rapidly coming to realize upon staying at home all day, it’s that I have a lot of tabletop RPG rulebooks lying around, many of which I just haven’t read at all. I’ve rapidly run out of excuses for not reading these, for reasons readily apparent to anyone else currently living through this pandemic, and now that I’m all but certain that I will be working from home through the end of the year, I might as well read all these books, and while I’m gonna read all these books, I might as well write about them.

I’m specifically hoping to look at some books in my collection that I think have new, exciting ideas: either ideas I can pull into campaigns that I am game mastering, or mechanical ideas I can riff on in my own designs. This search for novelty has guided my choice of the eleven games I will be reading as a part of that series, but I also want to read games that don’t have as much writing on them around the internet. I could finally get around to reading my copy of Cthulhutech cover to cover, but at this point everyone knows what Cthulhutech‘s deal is, and if you don’t you can Google your way into knowing pretty fast.

The 11 games I will be reading and commenting on in this series are as follows. I’m not necessarily committing to this order, mind you, but here’s the list.

Quest, by The Adventure Guild, a light, easy-to-learn fantasy game angling itself as an ideal RPG for beginners.

Magicians, by Kyle Simons, a game of teenage drama and magic as the player characters enroll in a school of magic to learn sorcery and you, the player, learn Korean in the process.

Durance, by Jason Morningstar, a Fiasco-like collaborative storytelling game where players come together to tell the story of a godforsaken prison planet on the edge of civilized space.

Red Markets, by Hebanon Games, a post-apocalyptic game of zombie horror which differentiates itself from the pack by framing itself in the systems and verbage of macroeconomics.

Shadowrun: Anarchy, by Catalyst Game Labs, a port of Shadowrun‘s setting away from its notorious dice pool system (hey I like 3E fight me) into the rules-light Cue System.

Over The Edge, Third Edition, by Atlas Games, the latest edition of a classic game of conspiracy and offbeat adventure in a totalitarian… libertarian island nation? I think?

Imp of the Perverse, by Nathan D. Paoletta, a monster-of-the-week game of Victorian horror where characters grapple with metaphysical manifestations of their suppressed desires.

Karanduun, by Joaquin Kyle Saavedra, a high-flying heroic action game of Filipino fantasy where players are scrappy warriors who set out to attack one of three Gods inspired by three tyrannical systems that have oppressed the Philippines in the past.

Invisible Sun, by Monte Cook Games, the legendary “big expensive cube” game of surreal fantasy that builds off of the MCG’s popular, if svelte, Cypher System.

Balikbayan: Returning Home, by Jamila R. Nedjadi, a diceless, potentially GMless post-cyberpunk/fantasy game heavily drawing upon Filipino folklore.

Armour Astir: Advent, by Briar Sovereign, a high-fantasy PbtA RPG where players rebel against an oppressive regime and its schemes with huge enchanted suits of armor (okay mechs they’re 100% mechs).

I will try to read these books cover to cover, but I am not going to guarantee it. Some of these books are, uh, large (the sprawling books that came with my digital copy of Invisible Sun are deeply intimidating to me), but I will attempt to gain at least a holistic view of both their setting, their mechanics, and their general mode(s) of play. If one of these games secretly has 50 pages of gear (eyes Shadowrun), I’m not promising you I’ll read the stat lines of every Spear of Goodstabbing or +4 Vorpal Gun.

So, cool! This should be fun! I’m gonna be cracking into the first game tonight, so hopefully my first writeup should be coming soon! Look forward to it!

Video Games Need More Signed Urinals

When I first learned about Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, my reaction was blind rage. In my defense, this was in my high school AP Art History class, and in high school my reactions to most things were some variety of rage. I saw Fountain as a transgression, a lazy hack’s attempt to generate controversy by shoehorning a stretch of an idea into a conversation about art.

For the uninitiated, I don’t want to inundate you with technical jargon, but Fountain is what people in the art world refer to as “a goddamn urinal”. Here it is:

Fountain 1917, replica 1964 Marcel Duchamp 1887-1968. Image courtesy the Tate Modern

Duchamp purchased a urinal from a local hardware store, flipped it over, signed it, and submitted it for exhibition by the Society of Independent Artists, an organization of art exhibitors which Duchamp himself helped to found, and whose board he sat on. Fountain was submitted as a sort of test of his fellow board members’ dedication to the philosophy of democratic exhibition and to free expression. The board voted to remove Fountain from exhibition, and Duchamp resigned his board position in protest.

In 2011, I sided thoroughly with the rest of the board of the Society. This is not art, I thought, art is paintings of Dutch nobility, and the Pyramids, and marble Olympians with small penises! You can’t just sign any old piss receptacle and call it art, where is the technique, the craftsmanship, the dedication?

As time went on though, my opinions about art in general and Fountain in particular started to move. At the time, I might have pointed to the great marble sculpture of the Greeks, Romans, and eventually Renaissance and post-Renaissance Italian masters as the apex of art. Truly, to carve solid marble into a form and even seemingly a texture resembling flesh was a sign of a true mastery of the medium. Look at The Veiled Virgin by Giovanni Strazza; not only did Strazza create a perfect simulacra of a woman’s head out of marble, he then veiled her. Can you imagine the technical skill you need to turn white marble into a translucent veil?

The Veiled Virgin, Giovanni Strazza 1818-1875. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Here’s the thing about The Veiled Virgin, though, is that it doesn’t actually make me feel anything. No thoughts are implanted in my mind by The Veiled Virgin. It’s almost as though it is so close to reality that my brain just doesn’t have the square footage in the possibility space to imagine anything. My only thoughts are “Wow, yeah, that looks like a woman wearing a veil. I bet that was really hard to do. I couldn’t do that”. I don’t mean to insult the talent of Strazza or the many other talented sculptors of this style both working today and in history, but this is the same response I would have to someone grabbing a piece of chalk and drawing a perfect circle freehand on a chalkboard. I don’t ponder it, it’s not sublime, I just go “man, dang, that’s a good circle”.

Meanwhile, even when my anger towards Fountain faded, I still found myself thinking about it constantly. This seems as though it was Duchamp’s intent, to encourage the audience of an artwork to spend less time considering the terms of its creation, and more time considering the ideas contained within. Fountain feels, like so many pieces of modern art, laser focused to trigger the gestalt, a very human part of the brain that takes incomplete images and attempts to use what it knows to complete them. To one used to thinking of artwork as the craft of the old masters, a urinal with a name on it is an incomplete thought, and the brain is forced to truly think about it to complete the thought. Instead of going “man, dang, that’s a good circle”, you begin with that most trite but useful of questions for modern art: “what does this mean?”.

That thought process, that slow mulling over of a piece in my head, trying to construct a framework of ideas that the work makes sense in, is infinitely more interesting to me than just appreciating the fine chiselwork of a sculptor or the delicate brushstrokes of a painter, it is a sort of puzzle box that forces me to not only consider the work itself, but the world around the work, in hopes of finding a clue within the environment that will make Fountain click open like the Lament Configuration, that will make the thought complete.

As an aside, Fountain‘s most consistently funny unanswered question for me is that posed by its origin: Fountain is a urinal, and urinals are very much built with a meaning in life already assigned to them. In a section obliquely labeled “Interventions“, Wikipedia goes on to describe the multiple times one or more people have attempted to pee into Fountain. Multiple people have succeeded.

The philosophy laid out by Duchamp would later be expanded upon by a lesser-known artistic movement called Fluxus, one I am extremely fond of. Fluxus artists returned to the artistic process held so sacred by traditional art critics, and found that even the process itself could be a vehicle for ideas and meaning, even to the point where the actual end product is rendered almost a leftover of the process. More renowned artists of the movement include Nam June Paik, John Cage, and Yoko Ono, but I want to talk about one Dick Higgins.

Dick Higgins is considered a co-founder of the Fluxus movement and worked in a variety of mediums, but I’m the most interested in his music, most notably a set of pieces called Danger Music, which went on to give its title to an entire genre of experimental music. As its title implies, the defining characteristic of danger music is that the performance of danger music must put the musician, the audience, or both into physical danger. One piece of danger music requires a live grenade to be thrown into the audience, another demands the performer “scoop out one of your eyes 5 years from now and do the same with the other eye 5 years later”. Danger music project Hanatarash once drove a bulldozer into a venue. The performance of danger music is the point; listening to a recording of a danger music performance loses all meaning, unless one really enjoys the sound of panes of glass shattering in a crowded concert venue.

One of Hanatarash’s more mild performances can be found on Youtube here. While you’re watching, keep in mind that the part where he lobs an oil drum into the crowd is not done during the music, it is the music.

Danger music’s mere existence raises so many interesting questions about music as an art form that I could frankly divert this entire post to just asking them. Do musicians have a responsibility to produce music that is safe? Is a piece of music still beautiful, still valid, still a complete work of art, if it is never performed, like that live grenade which has yet (to my knowledge) to be thrown into a crowd? Some genres of music, particularly metal and some more boisterous hip-hop, are meant to be played excruciatingly loud, to the point where they could cause very real hearing damage. Are these songs dangerous?

I bring up Fountain, Danger Music, and Fluxus because the kind of art I find the most interesting is that which is very openly disinterested in reveling in craftsmanship, instead focusing on using available media, techniques, and tricks to force the audience to think, to produce a new idea or worldview it wouldn’t have without it, whether that process requires a master sculptor’s years of experience or a Sharpie and a trip to Home Depot. Here, finally, after over 1000 words, I’ll talk about video games.

Perhaps as a side-effect of the tools used to create video games still being so young, the discussion of video games as craft still heavily focuses on the craftsmanship around them. Popular discussion of video games, even by people who would openly consider them to be “art”, is dominated by metrics of technical achievement: the framerate at which they run, the graphical fidelity of the game’s world, the sheer size of the game’s space for play, how many ping pong balls you can tape to a horse in a mocap studio so you can accurately simulate how its testicles will shrink in the winter.

To me, no game signifies this philosophy quite like The Last of Us. A 2013 game by Naughty Dog drawing heavily from The Road, No Country for Old Men, Resident Evil 4, and Ico, The Last of Us was a massive financial and critical success, and was in many cases a masterpiece of the craft of video game development. The game looks absolutely gorgeous, even more so with its HD remaster for current-gen consoles. The music is haunting and beautiful, the animations vivid and smooth, with every physical strike against an opponent being unflinchingly realistic. The writing is also excellent, helping to bring the lead characters, the grizzled and world-weary Joel and the youthful and hopeful Ellie, to life. The incredible motion capture put into these characters also certainly help to bring these two characters to reality.

While I have not played The Last of Us Part II, it seems to very much be carrying on that legacy, with game design Twitter going bananas over the game’s incredible rope modeling, and the fabric physics exhibited when a character takes off their shirt (these sound remarkably pedestrian, but fabric is about as hard to render in pixels as it is in marble).

The thing is that The Last of Us makes me feel nothing, just like The Veiled Virgin. Its dedication to strong writing and to beautiful visuals and to grisly, realistic violence don’t lead me to think about it, don’t force me to scour the world for a framework in which to understand it, what the game means is laid bare. All that’s left for me to think whenever Joel brains a clicker with a fire axe is “man, dang, that’s a good circle”.

I’m leaving this particularly grueling GIF here on purpose. Watching it loop, over and over again, it doesn’t make you consider the meaning of the violence, or the world in which this violence is made, it makes you think “yeah, goddamn, that’s a really lifelike animation of someone getting brained with an axe”.

Den vänstra handens stig is a video game I saw at PAX South in 2016. A one-man project with relatively simple pixel art, Den vänstra handens stig lacks what one would traditionally call “controls”, despite being of a kind with traditional platformers like Super Mario Bros. Instead, the game character is controlled by an AI, one which repeatedly tries and fails to clear the game’s levels, with each death causing the AI to learn a bit more about the best strategy to take on the game.

That’s a hand, I promise

The singular control of Den vänstra handens stig was a single button on the show floor, hand made in a wooden case. The button, which is actually designed to have a needle sticking out of it which had to be removed to comply with PAX rules, actually does a lot: it kills the player character instantly, completely wipes everything learned by the AI, and restarts the entire game from scratch.

When I saw this game at PAX, I was entranced by it, and the struggles of this AI doofus as he tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and succeeded at traversing his hopeless little world were enthralling. At a certain point, a group of spectators, including myself, formed something of a phalanx around the button, aiming to protect it from people passing by on the show floor, who might be compelled by either malice or the haunting allure of a big button to reset the entire game.

Den vänstra handens stig is a game I think about constantly, even though it seems like development has stalled since 2016. To what degree is watching a video game being played playing the game? When we lose at a video game, when our progress is reset, or worse, when we simply cease to play a game, and all lessons on how to play it seep slowly from our memory, what does that incomplete play experience mean? Why is the proposition of completely obliterating all progress in the game, even when it might literally hurt me, so innately tempting?

When the game was initially put on Steam Greenlight, Valve’s now-retired stab at allowing the community to vote on what games would be put on PC game marketplace Steam, a lot of the comments were extremely dismissive of Den vänstra handens stig. Here are some direct quotes:

  • “it seems that all you do is jump over holes and climb up ledges”
  • “This is terrible. Why would you submit this?”
  • “Oh this is deeply unpleasent. This is NOT okay!”
  • “Tired of these kind of games, so no. Also way to create one of the worst names ever for a videogame. Just damn.”

When I look through these comments (although I must admit a lot of these are positive, and the game eventually did pass Greenlight’s approval process), I kind of think of them like the board members of the Society of Independent Artists, dismissing Fountain as just a urinal, and as some vulgar piece of trash not worthy of exhibition. I think of teenage me in 2011, declaring that this is not a video game, video games have guns and murder and numbers that you make bigger so you can kill people better and big maps full of icons for all of the street races you can do. Surely, much as I thought that an artist had to at least make his piece instead of just buying it, I might have thought that surely a video game at least needs to have controls.

While Den vänstra handens stig never formally came out (to my knowledge), other games of its kind have. Every Sale I Drink A Glass Of Water is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: an ever expanding video of the creator drinking a glass of water every time someone buys the game. Like Den vänstra handens stig, Every Sale does technically have a control, it’s just that the control input is the act of purchasing the game.

Moirai, a ten-minute adventure game now unplayable, placed the player in a deeply uncomfortable position. Sent into a cave to investigate suspicious moans heard from within, the player encounters a strange, knife-wielding man who looks extremely suspicious, and is sometimes drenched in a blood spatter. After some questioning, the player can let this shifty man pass, or kill them, before progressing deeper into the cave to find a woman wracked in pain, suffering from a botched suicide attempt. She hands you her knife and asks you to finish her off. If you don’t oblige, she splashes her blood at you in a fit of rage. Upon resolving the encounter with a woman, on your way back up, you are confronted by a farmer, who subjects you to the same line of questioning you posed the knife-wielding stranger when you entered the cave, and then you realize that you are the knife-wielding stranger drenched in blood. Every time a player enters the cave, they are greeted by the saved responses of a player exiting the cave, and from those responses and without the knowledge that they are simultaneously confronting another player and essentially their own future self, the player will decide whether or not this figure will die.

These games are not masterpieces of craftsmanship. These are either one man projects or small team projects, mostly built by non-professional developers. They don’t use the latest technology, they don’t have exquisite graphics or perfectly crafted dialogue or delicately-tuned combat, but they are the perfect vessels for ideas, ideas which plant themselves in my head and make me spin them around while I lie in bed, looking for the angle at which I can fumble together an answer. I enjoy this process greatly, and every time one of these big budget AAA video games full of realistically rendered violence and horse testicles barges into store shelves, I find myself wishing that budget was instead cannibalized to fund a million Death Buttons or Glasses of Water or Recursive Farmer Murders.

I write this as something of a call to action, both to the reader and to myself. The vast budgets and photorealistic graphics and mocap studios might seem like an imposing barrier around the realm of game design, one which is as impossible to imagine achieving as creating translucent veils out of marble, but that is not what a good video game has to be. This model of what a video game is not only serves to dissuade people from playing with the medium, but also closes off the possibility space to a variety of ideas that cannot be expressed by the normal model.

Make something sloppy and simple and dumb, as long as you have an idea to bring to reality. Having that idea and expressing it is more important than anything, including the need for the thing you make to even be recognizable as a video game. Go grab your sharpie and sign a urinal. Then maybe pee in it.

Building On A Core Loop With Doomguy, With Mixed Results

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Personally, I would say that one of the defining features of Doom (2016), which for convenience here I’m just going to call “Doom“, is that the design of that game is tightly wound around the core combat loop. Combat is designed around a single rhythm, that of running around a combat arena, gunning down demons, a rhythm of charging in, ripping a demon apart for some health or some ammo, and backing off to release another salvo of ammunition. Everything about Doom, from the enemy design to the level design to even the narrative, is in service of this loop: back off, shoot, charge, rip and tear, repeat.

That’s why I don’t necessarily envy the task of having to make a sequel to Doom. That game is a perpetual motion machine of a design, one which converts movement to damage to glory kills to resources to movement, and having to expand on that framework in the way a sequel does stands two obvious risks: the feeling like anything you add will be unnecessary chaff, bolted onto the exterior of this machine, or worse, your additions might disturb the flow of that machine, breaking it in the process.

This is not to say that Doom was perfect, though, and that there was no room for improvement. The game mechanics had generally been milked for all they were worth hours before the game’s climax, leaving the ending feeling a bit like it wore out its welcome. Speaking of the game’s climax, in the third act the game seemed to forget that, no, I actually don’t care that much about the Doom plot, please don’t literally immobilize me and force me to listen to plot for five minutes.

So, with a tricky problem to solve, but definite space to improve and grow on the framework of Doom, we sit here in 2020 with Doom Eternal, technically the sixth game in the Doom series (if you count Doom 64, which Doom Eternal has surprisingly strong opinions that you should). Having just finished the game recently, I can finally answer whether or not Eternal meaningfully builds on the framework of Doom, or if it just gets in its own way in an attempt to expand for expansion’s sake.

The answer is “yes”. It does both.

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Doom Eternal‘s combat loop had me grinning from ear to ear. Looking back at gameplay footage of Doom, a game praised for fast-paced, momentum driven, pulse-pounding combat, it feels positively glacial compared to Eternal. Base movement speed has been sped up, along with the addition of a quick dash, weapons shoot faster while maintaining their punchy feel, and enemies in Eternal are far more aggressive, mobbing you and forcing you to keep moving, lest you feel overwhelmed. Glory kills happen much faster (although I did have the upgrade that speeds them up equipped for most of the game, so that might skew matters, although the presence of that upgrade in Eternal is significant in its own right).

This uptick in speed is combined with a retooling of the game’s resource system. Enemy corpses now serve as piñatas for health, ammo, or armor, depending on the precise way by which that enemy violently died. Maximum ammo counts have been pretty aggressively dropped, which combined with weapons’ high rate of fire means you’re wanting for ammo almost constantly. The aforementioned aggressive enemies create a similar strain on health and armor. The rhythm that was in Doom is here, but magnified in speed. You’re always running away from threats and damage, and running towards your next target, in hopes of immolating, eviscerating, or exploding them to get whatever resource you need next. You isolate a target and burn them down whilst trying to avoid everyone else actively trying to kill you. You are always predator and prey, simultaneously.

The retooled chainsaw, an insta-kill weapon which causes enemies to spill bullets like a leaking Cabela’s, deserves special mention. The chainsaw in Doom was a sort of last-ditch effort, a weapon you really only used in an absolute pinch, frequently either to save you from running completely out of ammo, or to wipe out an enemy that poses too great a threat. Eternal has repositioned the chainsaw to be your primary source of ammo, granting you a regenerating point of fuel for it, ensuring you always have it available, in exchange for requiring more than that single point of fuel for enemies stronger than your basic fodder.

Doing this directly correlates with the game’s momentum, and the feeling of aggression promoted via the mechanics. Combat encounters are always filled with fodder enemies (they don’t stop respawning until you kill the quote-unquote “real” enemies), many of whom, like the Imp or Gargoyle, add to the constant cacophony of attacks the player must either dodge or endure. The incentive to use the chainsaw is great, it removes a source of damage from play, however temporarily, and replenishes ammo. The chainsaw is always a good move; you don’t risk running out of ammo, and there’s always something to chainsaw. These two factors push the player to chainsaw constantly, which ensures the player constantly gets the dopamine hit of eliminating enemies, violently at that. The chainsawing of fodder enemies creates a sort of “background violence” to Doom Eternal, a feeling that even that time spent evading larger threats is still time in which you are on the attack. Simply put, the chainsaw ensures that, even in fights with late-game enemies who can endure hundreds of bullets (not an exaggeration), the player never goes more than a few moments without killing something.

So, the combat has been expanded while still maintaining a constant sense of speed and violence, making the player make interesting decisions in combat due to a rhythmic pace forcing the player to context switch between defense and attack (or, perhaps more accurately for Doom Eternal, attack and ballsier attack). How do the rest of the additions fare?

Well…

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Let’s take a step back and talk about the Doom Slayer, or Doom Guy, as a character. Even still, this sentence is kind of funny: the Doom Guy of the original Doom games is a blank slate, a void of personality, essentially a shotgun on legs. Doom, this is again 2016 Doom, knew this, and in building out the setting and lore of the world actually maintained the Doom Slayer (as he had been renamed) as a sort of elemental of violence, a storm more than a person. Sure, other characters would go on about cults and gods and the energy crisis and the good of mankind, but the Doom Slayer, both within the narrative and through the actions of the player, existed purely to rend demons. Every action he took was done, either in part or in totality, because it let the Doom Slayer kill more demons.

Doom Eternal attempts to massively expand upon the setting of Doom, establishing cosmological hierarchies, factions within the setting, and most notably, an origin and personality for the Doom Slayer, which isn’t fundamentally bad, but the execution absolutely erases the Doom Slayer’s established nature. Establishing this setting requires characters to explain this setting, and doing so requires the Doom Slayer to patiently wait while characters explain their dark schemes, in one case causing enemies directly responsible for the invasion of Earth by Hell to get away because Doom Guy gave them a chance to talk.

Now, I don’t really care about the integrity of the character of the Doom Slayer, as far as I care from a narrative perspective they can retcon him into a 67 year old Italian man named Giuseppe who kills demons to raise money for his struggling turnip farm, I absolutely do not care. The problem with the recharacterization is that the Doom Slayer was designed such that it framed the plot of Doom in such a way that it tied with the game’s mechanical loop instead of against it. In gameplay and out of it, the Doom Slayer existed to murder demons. Everything else felt like it was in service to that goal, and in this the game had a consistent tone and a clarity of purpose.

Eternal‘s rework of the Doom Slayer character muddles that tone, meaning there are times in the game where you, the player, want to go kill demons, but the game, and now the Doom Slayer, want to do something else. Enemies will appear, including an early appearance by what ends up being the game’s antagonist, and the player’s mind is thinking “KILL. I WANT TO KILL THAT”, but the Doom Slayer is content to patiently listen to her admonishment, and a disconnect is born.

Less important but still annoying, a lot of the peripheral character building with regards to the Doom Slayer demotes him even further. Imagining the Doom Slayer meticulously arranging his off-brand Funko Pops on his shelves, or smacking himself in the head as he practices with his nunchucks (which are visible in his home office, right next to his gaming PC) contrasts the Doom Slayer as Warrior King and Violence Incarnate with the Doom Slayer, Someone’s Lame Uncle. I get strong “present-day Stephen Seagal” vibes from this Doom Slayer.

Mechanically speaking, the additions to things other than combat are also pretty weak. The pacing between fights is dragged to a crawl by a new emphasis on first-person platforming, which admittedly is better than it usually is. However, these platforming sections aren’t really lack any sense of mastery of the controls or a push towards exploration (the path is usually very obvious), meaning they just sort of take time. Bizarrely, these sections are devoid of enemies, and while I spent the entire game expecting a moment where I would have to successfully platform while in combat, the closest the game ever got was one switch you need to shoot mid-flight. Because of this, it’s hard to not feel about the game as “the part I came here for” (the combat) and “this other stuff” (platforming).

Here, I think, is a lesson. Doom was a machine, single-minded in purpose. In adding these platforming sections to the game, Eternal is spending valuable time in its levels pulling the player away from The Thing They Came To Doom To Do (the slogan is “Rip and Tear”, not “Rip and Tear and then Grab Onto This Wall so you can Reach This Monkey Bar”). I hypothesize this would have proven far less intrusive had the platforming section been more closely integrated with combat (simply adding some enemies to the platforming areas would be a start, although I suspect the current form of the platforming mechanics would be a little clumsy to try and balance with a combat encounter), or to build up this part of the game into something worth focusing on.

Other shooters, especially Titanfall 2, have pulled off this “combat-movement dichotomy” better, mainly by one, ensuring that the platforming sections were just as dynamic, action-packed, and exciting as combat, and two, ensuring there was a relatively high skill ceiling to the movement abilities available to the player. Titanfall‘s wall running was hard, it required timing and a good sense of momentum, which compounded with levels that required you to wall-run in increasingly elaborate and interesting situations. Moreover, this mobility is deeply tied to the combat of Titanfall 2, and even in the fiercest firefights (at least, while on foot), you will be wallrunning, jumping, crouch sliding, and using all of the movement mechanics to their fullest.

Doom Eternal‘s mobility mechanics mostly require you to find a climbable wall, jump to it, look for the next climbable wall, jump to it, ad infinitum, from the first level to the last. Other than “sometimes platforms fall”, this mechanic is never built upon, and never truly challenging. As previously mentioned, the new dash is heavily utilized in combat simply in the need to maintain speed, but the other mobility mechanics introduced, including climbable walls and monkey bars, exist only as vestigial appendages to combat arenas, pieces of level design I noticed frequently, but never needed.

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One time I saw a climbable wall in an arena in the midst of a fierce firefight, and I said, out loud, to my empty apartment, “why the fuck would I use that right now”.

I’m nitpicking all of this only because the beauty of Doom were the moments where all aspects of the game all fed into the same core idea of “rip and tear”. When the combat gameplay, the soundtrack, the level design, the narrative, and the character were all in harmony, all screaming at you “RIP THEIR GUTS OUT”, it feels incredible. When Eternal hits those same notes, it brings out even higher highs. Looking back at old footage of Doom, I was surprised how incredibly slow it looked for a game I remembered as pulse-poundingly fast, which is a testament to the incredible sense of speed Eternal builds, when it wants to (which, admittedly, is frequently).

Unfortunately, my praise for Eternal cannot come without similar bemoaning of the lack of focus, the moments where the game tears me (heh) from what I want to do, which is visceral murder, so I can look at some hot new Doomguy backstory or do some platforming. These attempts to build onto the core loop of Doom instead feel vestigial, like in some version of this game they might have been cool, had they more tightly embraced that core beating heart of Doom Eternal, but instead I just wish someone would take a chainsaw to them and carve them off of my great game.

 

Making Puzzles For Games I: Vectors of Interaction

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In case the content of this blog did not demonstrate this, I am deeply interested in all facets of game design, a domain that can be messily divided into video game design and tabletop game design (there are a bunch of other areas of knowledge too, like for gambling games, sports, gamification, and surely a bunch of other niches I’m unaware of). There’s a lot of shared thought and space between video games and tabletop games, especially since video games from near inception to today have been using ideas from its older brother, a translation of ideas that tabletop games have started to reciprocate recently. There is, however, one idea that does not make the jump across that particular threshold so easily: the puzzle.

Puzzles, which I’ll vaguely and probably incorrectly define as “a challenge in a game which is overcome with knowledge, logic, or lateral thinking instead of strength, skill, execution, or numerical advantage”, are pretty tightly linked with both tabletop games and video games and have been since both mediums’ inceptions. Generally speaking, people like a good head-scratcher, and a puzzle is a good way to provide a change of pace from the regular core action of a game.

I’ve seen a lot of puzzles in video games, and a lot of puzzles in tabletop games, and I can tell you that while puzzles in video games range from awful to transcendent, puzzles in tabletop games, in my experience, are almost unilaterally awful.

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Again, some video game puzzles are definitely also bad

They’re awful in a specific way, too: the puzzle is presented, players spend too long bashing their head against solutions, usually in a solution that too closely resembles brute force, until finally the energy in the room is so thoroughly sapped that someone looks at the Game Master and goes “fuck it, what is it” and the whole thing is just resolved by GM fiat or by ten goblins falling out of a ceiling tile in a desperate ploy just to create some semblance of forward momentum again.

How can it be that even the most action-packed video games can successfully include some relatively obtuse puzzles, and sliding a single puzzle into even a slow, investigative tabletop RPG session collapses immediately? I don’t think it’s all bad puzzle design on the part of tabletop RPG designers (although they’re certainly not fully blameless), I think that there are fundamental differences in the two types of game which make one have a much easier time with puzzles than the other, the largest of which is going to be what I call “vectors of interaction”.

When I refer to a “vector of interaction”, I am talking about a single way in which a player can in some way affect the world of the game. You can think of these as “verbs”, although I think they’re a little bit broader than that. In Super Mario Bros, the vectors of interaction include moving left and right, jumping, crouching, and shooting a fireball. These are the fundamental vectors.

Since the player exists outside of the game and the puzzle exists within it, it is fairly reasonable to say that the only way a puzzle can be solved is by applying a certain set of vectors of interaction in a certain order. To open the locked door, you must move (a vector) to the enemy that has the key, attack (a vector) them until they die, pick up (a vector) the key, move (same vector) back to the door, then unlock (last vector) the door.

One of the strongest tools that puzzles in games have in creating the puzzle is by carefully curating the player’s vectors of interaction. Games frequently set up puzzles by teaching the player what their vectors are, and then conditioning the player to recognize subtle hints which indicate to them what vectors might need to be used where. This can be very obvious (when you see enemies, you probably need to fight or kill them), or more subtle (whenever you need to find a ladder in The Last of Us, the ledge that you will use that ladder to access will usually be painted yellow). The Witness, famously, built an entire game, with tons of puzzle variety, around a single vector of interaction: guiding a line along a grid to a goal.

Games can also build puzzles by subverting expectations regarding vectors of interaction, perhaps introducing new ones, or making the player find new ways to use old vectors. For an example of the former, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass has several puzzles that are solved by using vectors of interaction that the player might not even initially think to use, namely the DS’s microphone and ability to close. The ending of Portal 2 does the latter exceptionally, by leveraging a gag from hours ago that the portal-friendly walls of the Aperture testing facility are painted with moon rock, in order to get the player to shoot a portal at the actual Moon.

Here in vectors of interaction we have a massive gulf between video games and tabletop RPGs, one which at first blush sounds like it might be in favor of tabletop RPGs: video games have an order of magnitude fewer potential vectors of interaction than a tabletop RPG. Every gaming platform has a limited number of control inputs, which can only be reused and combined so many ways before a game’s controls become cumbersome. As a result, players’ problem solving toolkits are dramatically limited in video games. You cannot hash out a verbal truce with Bowser at the end of Super Mario Bros. You cannot get through a locked door in Resident Evil by breaking it down.

Tabletop RPGs, as a (typically) completely spoken-word storytelling medium where the game exists in players’ boundless imagination, has no such limitations. Players’ vectors of interaction are functionally infinite: any action they can conceive of, at least any action that doesn’t conflict with the fundamental rules of the game world’s reality, is valid. An enemy can be shot, stabbed, talked down, tied up, avoided, thrown down a big hole, brought to exhaustion, brought to boredom, outlived until it eventually dies of old age, anything at all.

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Admittedly, point-and-click adventure games actually have a similar problem, with their wide gamut of verbs available to the player and an unclear delineation between foreground and background

The problem is that infinite vectors of interaction equate to infinite potential actions at any given moment when solving a puzzle, which equate to infinite red herrings. When I as a player can talk to every single inhabitant of a town infinitely while investigating a murder, as opposed to a video game where they will inevitably run out of dialogue, I have the room to explore red herrings and dead ends forever. If they truly don’t know how to solve a puzzle, and try to simply brute force it, they have infinite options to iterate through until they find the correct one.

Thus, a potential avenue to developing a puzzle that players will solve in a finite amount of time, ideally before everyone at the table spits bile at the mere mention of the word “puzzle”, is the careful curation of vectors of interaction. By limiting the possibility space of a puzzle’s solution, players can reason about a more limited set of options and, hopefully, come to a solution in a limited amount of time. I’ll be discussing the ways you can do this in the next post in this series, but as a teaser, there are at least two strategies you can follow to do this, you can either add an additional layer of interaction to the game, limiting players’ available vectors to a more manageable subset, or you can use signalling in order to let players trim down vectors themselves.

The other major solution that comes to mind, one which I’ll also be covering, is what I like to call Gordian Knot puzzle design. This is to say, create a puzzle without a solution, at least not one in mind, and trust in the players’ ingenuity, combined with the infinite vectors of interaction available to them, to produce a solution without you having to think of it beforehand.

These techniques are designed to either constrain or work with tabletop RPG’s extreme breadth of vectors of interaction, and hopefully utilizing these techniques will help produce RPG puzzles that are actually enjoyable, for once.

 

My Top Ten Games Of The Decade: Near Misses

It’s end of year list time, baby! With a dearth of news and releases around this time of year, anyone hoping to maintain a steady stream of Content About Video Games will be taking this time to slap together lists of arbitrary numbers of games from the year according to vague and ultimately completely personal criteria, and I am no exception! And it’s the end of the decade at that, so double whammy!

To be honest, I always really enjoy end of year lists like these. The format just makes it really convenient to see what kinds of games certain people like and gravitate towards, the breadth of these lists usually means you end up finding a game or two you missed in the year to revisit (for me, these 2019 lists have gotten me to pick up A Short Hike, a game I totally missed), and it’s just fun to argue about how good things you like are in comparison to other things you like but not as much.

To this end, I’ll be putting out three lists for the end of the year: two Games of the Decade lists, one of my actual games of the decade (not this one) and one of games that I really liked and want to talk about but aren’t quite good enough to land on that first list (this one), as well as a Games of 2019 list. I will freely confess that the only criteria for these lists is purely an amalgam of my tastes, my emotional reactions to things, as well as a few vague senses of nostalgia. These, like every other game of the year list, are opinions, and while I’ll justify why I like all these games, ultimately the reason any of them are on a list is “I like them”.

So, without further ado, here are 10 games from 2010 to 2019 that I liked quite a bit, but not more than 10 other games.

NieR: Automata

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NieR: Automata is going to set a theme for a lot of these near misses, which is a set of games who knock either the mechanics or the narrative conceit out of the park, but not both. In NieR‘s case, we’re going to be talking about a game whose plot, characters, and ideas are so powerful and interesting that this game literally made me cry, but whose gameplay is… well it’s fine.

This game made absolute waves when it came out, and for extremely good reason. A game dripping with the original vision of designer and insane person Yoko Taro, NieR is this sort of mismash of a lot of ideas. Blade Runner? Starship Troopers? Frankenstein? It’s a bit hard to nail NieR‘s thematic relatives, because the way it presents its ideas is so fabulously interesting. A game that, on first glance, you peg as “Oh, I get it, this is a ‘what makes a robot a person’ kinda stories” blossoms in a fabulously interesting way, into a game about duty and hope, a game about the way love ties us together and tears us to shreds, a game that is an infinitely more interesting statement on death than a million bloodsoaked gore shooters.

And then you have to play NieR: Automata, and with the exception of a few absolutely inspired moments (I cannot emphasize enough that I was full-force weeping at a credits sequence), NieR: Automata plays like a relatively bog-standard character action game. An interesting loadout system where chips containing skills and abilities must be slotted into limited memory failed me as I landed on a sufficient loadout about 8 hours into a 30 hour game and never touched it a game. The combat gets a smidge repetitive, the boss fights maybe a bit less good as the game goes on, and ultimately you reach a point where you want the game to just pull the controls away from you and just show you what it has, which is phenomenal. Middling combat is what barely drags this game down from being a great for me.

Dishonored (and Dishonored 2 and Death of the Outsider)

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The only reason Dishonored isn’t in my personal top 10 is that Prey exists, and basically does everything Dishonored does but a little bit better, but Arkane’s breakout hit of the last console generation still has enough interesting ideas of its own to warrant mention unto itself. With Dishonored, Arkane Studios and creative directors Raphaël Colantonio and Harvey Smith came out swinging as the best immersive sim designers in the game today.

Dishonored and its sequels are such an unbelievable delight to play. The world of Dunwall is a delightful oilpunk hellhole, taking heavy cues from Industrial Revolution-era Britain with insidious veins of eldritch horror waiting in the wings. The levels in this game are so expertly crafted, to reward nosy players with new approaches to every assassination, and to be toyboxes that provide the necessary ingredients for players of any playstyle to experiment, play around, and ultimately leverage the game’s wide and inventive set of tools to solve any problems before them.

As the series has gone on, its provided some of the absolute best levels that the immersive sim genre, if not video games as a whole, have ever seen. Lady Boyle’s Last Party, The Clockwork Mansion, and A Crack In The Slab are levels that were an absolute delight to play, stuffed to the gills with fantastically interesting ideas. I want to replay these games at basically all times, if only because they are so dense with ideas and have such a wide possibility space that I think I could play them a dozen more times, each time playing a unique and interesting way.

Burnout Paradise

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I’m not a big car guy, really. This is potentially to the disappointment of my father, who is as passionate about cars as I am about video games, but nothing about them other appeals to me other than their utility as a tool to get me from place to place. This largely extends to a disinterest in racing video games, but one shining, beautiful exception was out there, one which dared to imagine a car not just as vehicle, but as weapon.

Burnout as a series is the apotheosis of the genre in my eyes, and Paradise, the very pinnacle. Burnout recognizes the power of video games to provide a fantasy unavailable to most, the fantasy of driving very expensive cars very fast, and then goes a step forward to offer satisfaction for an even more untenable desire: what if you took that very expensive, very fast car, and you just ran it into some shit.

The world of Paradise City is heaven for those with such destructive tendencies, and presumably hell for insurance companies as well as, you know, anyone trying to get groceries or whatever. The open world of Paradise City lets you learn the roads as well as you know the roads of your own hometown, creating a real feeling of progression as you leverage your knowledge of shortcuts or busy intersections to grab a narrow victory in a race. On top of that, the game’s density of activity creates this wonderful feeling like Paradise City is a big theme park, a wonderful, dumb place filled to the brim with morons like you taking big expensive sportscars and using them as blunt instruments. Burnout Paradise is, in a pure, beautiful sense, extremely dumb fun.

Bloodborne

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Dark Souls canonized a whole genre, and was a masterpiece of game design which thundered into the zeitgeist with a player skill-driven difficulty, unique and interesting world, incredible encounter design, and some deeply satisfying combat. But it’s also a technical mess, a bit visually drab, and is extremely uneven in quality, especially in the third act. These are problems largely resolved by Bloodborne, my favorite Souls game.

This is a word thrown around too much in games, but if I had to describe the fundamental ethos of Bloodborne, it’s “brutal”. Bloodborne is a game that revels in a gory, unpleasant violence, the violence of being ripped apart by gnashing teeth, the violence of a rusty axe slicing through boil-ridden, rotting flesh. Yharnam is Gothic Horror incarnate, a horrible place where the thin veneer of decorum and class and academia only serves to further highlight the incongruity of the plague-ridden, pus-dripping, flesh-rending, nails-on-chalkboard horrors inside of it. Yharnam is a fantastically enchanting place for how absolutely horrible it is. And you, slumbering Hunter, are here to kill it all.

There are a lot of reasons Bloodborne cinches this spot for me over Dark Souls, but this devotion to the idea of violence is a cornerstone of them. Where Dark Souls never quite gave me a feeling of mastery, only of practice, Bloodborne from minute one makes you feel like a violent killer, one who claws themselves out of their own grave over and over and over again, restless until every living thing you can get your hands on is dead.

Pokemon HeartGold & SoulSilver

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Pokemon as a franchise is near and dear to my heart. Pokemon Silver was my second video game, and I played subsequent titles religiously until I sort of fell off around the era of Sun and Moon. However, I hopped right back on the Pokeboat with Sword and Shield, and that recent memory has just reinvigorated my memory that, dang, Pokemon is fun.

SoulSilver isn’t perfect by any means. Obviously this is a game still deeply rooted in the franchise tropes that persisted for 20 years, and these more grindy, rote parts of the series are magnified by the fact that SoulSilver‘s pacing is garbage. I invite anyone who disagrees with me to revisit the game, and enjoy the pain as you suddenly run out of level-appropriate wild Pokemon in the midgame, right around a set of challenging Gym Leaders, forcing you to spend what feels like an eternity grinding. The existence of Sword and Shield, and the way those games have smoothed over the worst parts of the formula, only make this lull worse in hindsight.

Despite this, it’s hard to argue with the personal gravity of SoulSilver, a game perfectly built to tug at my nostalgia. It’s Pokemon Silver, one of my first video games! There’s a whole extra region wedged in after the first Elite Four! The Pokemon run along behind you because we’re best friends! No matter how my tastes in gaming mature, I think I’ll always have a love for Pokemon, and SoulSilver is a perfect love letter from the world of Pokemon to me.

Assassins Creed: Brotherhood

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Ubisoft’s particular mantra of open-world game design has, in the last ten years, led to two major paradigms for the genre, one of people (most notably Ubisoft itself) aping it wholesale, and another of designers opting to reject it, creating games that exist in direct opposition to maps laden with waypoints and climbing towers. In 2019, it can be hard to remember a time when this sort of design was groundbreaking, and while its roots can be found in Assassins Creed II, the je n’ais ce quoi wasn’t there until Brotherhood.

The game that unified Assassins Creed‘s worlds from a series of disparate maps together into the single, massive, sprawling city and countryside of Rome, Brotherhood was the start of something big for open-world games. This is the first open-world game I can think of where the mere act of traversal was, unto itself, fun. The characters were fun and interesting, the plot just a bit bonkers in a delightful way, and the world jam-packed with stuff to do, this game represented a bridge being built between the iconic open-world games of the previous decade, like Fallout 3Oblivion, and Grand Theft Auto 4, and the rest of games, representing a free and open trade of ideas that would define the decade’s games. If Assassins Creed could become open world so excellently, everything could.

On top of all of that, Assassins Creed: Brotherhood had some of the most interesting multiplayer of any game of the decade. Forsaking traditional CTF and deathmatch modes, Brotherhood‘s online play was a pulse-pounding game of cat-and-mouse, where hunters had to pursue their targets blending as closely with a crowd of NPCs as they could, both to keep their target at ease, and to hide from their own hunter. Tense, reserved, and clever in a way most games aren’t, this mode’s DNA still beats on today in games like Spy Party. An absolute delight.

Control

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The newest game on the Near Miss List, Control was an absolute delight to discover this year. Featuring a delightful story which taps into a rich vein of ideas from The X-Files, Warehouse 13, the SCP Foundation, and more, Control features a sort of bureaucratic horror, a game which focuses on the common ground between two of the most unknowable forces in the universe: the strange, magical, terrifying forces which creep in our subconscious, popping up in dark shadows in the corners of our eyes, and the inner workings of the United States government.

The resulting game is a constant treat, a weird game of discovery and wonder and horror as you explore the innards of the Oldest House, in equal parts enchanted by a multiverse of things that go bump in the night, and the extensive government bureaucracy which so futilely hopes to categorize and understand them. This story is delivered by an exemplary cast of interesting characters, level design that manages to perfectly capture the oppressive beauty of brutalism, and satisfying moment-to-moment gameplay which involves a lot of telekinetically throwing bookcases at people.

Control‘s not perfect. The game’s progression systems are… well they’re pretty garbage, featuring an extremely boring and uninspired upgrade system so focused on banal statistical buffs that it feels almost anachronistic in a game this creative. Some of the environments drag on a bit longer than they need to, and the difficulty spikes wildly in a few seemingly random spots. However, The Oldest House is fundamentally an absolute delight to explore, and the next time The Board calls, I’ll be there to pick up.

The Stanley Parable

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An early star of what would eventually become a wide, wonderful field of metatextual games, The Stanley Parable wow’ed me when I first played it as a Half Life 2 mod over a decade ago, and it wow’ed me when I played the full release, and it’s still kind of amazing today. This game is just so unrelentingly clever in how it uses the medium to make its point, and even today few games have managed it without coming off as aggressively pretentious and ham-fisted.

The moment you encounter the first choice in The Stanley Parable, the moment you go “wait, but what if I…”, that moment is transcendent. The Stanley Parable is a defiant exclamation that the way we think about how we play video games is too narrow, and that by simply ignoring traditional norms for things like “control schemes” and “inputs” and “goals” we can discover some amazing new games. I’ve done a lot of things in a lot of games, but few of them were as successful at forming a lasting memory in my brain as standing still in a supply closet in The Stanley Parable.

The Stanley Parable is a thesis statement, the explosive start to an entire new era of game design, where games felt more free to talk about deep, complex ideas, to invert and skew and reinvent the base mechanics of play, where we figured out how to lie to the player and trick them and make it work.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron

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Show me another human being who even mentions this game on any sort of games of the decade list, I dare you. El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is a game that went for it in a crazy, beautiful, high-concept way resulting in a game that I can safely say is utterly unlike any of its peers, a game that took on a lot of big ideas and wasn’t afraid to be completely goddamn inscrutable in service of its theme.

El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron is a loose retelling of the biblical Book of Enoch, in which the scribe Enoch must descend to Earth and bring seven fallen Angels to judgement, before God floods the Earth in disgust at the sin they have created. This quest brings Enoch to a mighty tower constructed by the Fallen Angels, one which defies all physical logic as it contains seemingly infinite expanses of abstract, beautiful space and also in one case a cyberpunk future city?

El Shaddai is a fantastic game. It’s gorgeous, with a sort of watercolor aesthetic with which this strange, gorgeous world is painted. The combat is really interesting, featuring only a single attack button, which must be hit in different rhythms in order to yield different combos, and weapons which must be stolen from enemies regularly. Also, and this is crazy, this is a video game about the Bible, which is kind of batshit unto itself. El Shaddai has some pacing issues in the middle, its inventive combat isn’t quite inventive enough to not get stale near the end, and it can be hard to tell what’s artistically obtuse and what’s poorly written sometimes, but a game this weird and interesting and ambitious made its mark on me deep when I played it, and gives it a place close to my heart.

Into The Breach

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I bounced pretty hard off of Into The Breach‘s older brother, FTL: Faster Than Light. That game had this blend of randomness and panic in its core gameplay loop that I never felt really satisfied with my successes or my failures. When Into The Breach dropped into my lap, not only did its slow, thoughtful gameplay ensnare me to a far greater degree, it consumed my life. This game is, simply, amazing.

Into The Breach is a slow, calculating game, one which initially appears to be a Final Fantasy Tactics style tactics RPG, but in reality is an incredibly clever dynamic puzzle game, one in which every turn is a chessboard to be solved. Each mech and weapon in Into The Breach is deceptively simple, because they’re meant to be used with each other, with the environment, even with the enemies as you work out perfect, beautiful ways to sweep the board, somewhere between John Wick and a Rube Goldberg Machine.

In the last ten years, no game quite made me want to sink my teeth into some puzzles like Into The Breach. Perfectly fitting five minutes or three hours of play, and with deep, emergent gameplay mechanics that let you essentially customize your own puzzles by way of what mechs you pick, I never don’t want to play Into The Breach.

In fact, I’m going to go play it right now.

My Top Ten Games Of The Decade

I played a lot of video games in the last decade, and I think it speaks to the quality of the medium that there’s still so many that I want to play. I kind of wish the whole industry would just stop making stuff for a year or two so I could catch up, so I could play all the God of Wars and the Undertales and the Subnauticas and all of the other incredible games which I simply missed along the way for no reason other than the number of hours in the day. I pine for the day scientists crack the code of sleep, giving me back seven hours a day where I can just play all of these games I missed and appreciate all of the hard work which goes into this medium year after year.

But, alas, I am but a mortal who still needs to hit the hay (not for lack of trying), and this industry will keep marching forward, producing masterpiece after masterpiece. But, despite this, I can still appreciate that which I did play. And that’s really all this is: me, spending a moment to acknowledge the games that really moved me, the games that latched themselves in my brain and never let go, that influence my own design and my own tastes and just who I am as a person.

So, here they are, my personal top ten games from the last decade, the games which moved me, which changed what sort of things I wanted to make.

Death Stranding

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Yeah, this game came out like two months ago, and I’m not even done with it. Guess what, it’s on my list. My list, my rules, if you don’t like it, write your own list.

The team behind Death Stranding have done what I’ve wanted a AAA game developer to do for years now: they’ve rejected the traditional ideas of what make a video game “fun”. So many, too many games of this size now fall back on the same rote ideas of killing stuff, completing checkboxes on a map, going really fast, big setpieces, all of this stuff which is certainly fine, but when every game does it, I’m left feeling like video games as a medium are a bit stale right now. It’s a very similar feeling to how I feel about big-budget American movies right now: one paradigm rules the roost, and anything that isn’t that paradigm just isn’t profitable enough (at least in the eyes of people with the purse-strings) to make.

Then Death Stranding charges in and dares to imagine an absolutely ludicrous kind of game, a game where a major console manufacturer can throw millions of dollars into a game, stuffed to the brim with cutting edge graphics and celebrity cameos and a 60+ hour runtime, about lugging a bunch of heavy shit from point A to B. Death Stranding has some traditional combat mechanics (which are the worst part of the gameplay, IMO), but most of the mechanics revolve around making you increasingly skilled at carrying increasingly ludicrous amounts of crap across a desolate, empty world.

Yeah, whole thing’s not perfect. While the story and themes are interesting, the writing is garbage, and I’m becoming increasingly suspicious of if Hideo Kojima has ever actually met a woman, let alone is capable of writing one. The combat, like I said, is a little interesting but far too trivial to really matter. But, god dammit, the rest of this game is so interesting. The way it rewards learning the terrain of the world, the way it makes you feel a sense of community despite being completely isolated, the music, this game is truly something absolutely special.

Deadly Premonition

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When Nintendo unceremoniously announced a sequel to Deadly Premonition during one of their Directs this year, I screamed. I rewatched the trailer at least 30 times, texted everyone I knew, posted to every social media account I have. This is my Shenmue 3, my The Last Guardian, my Final Fantasy 7 remake. My beautiful, terrible dream that I assumed would never in a million years come true.

In many ways, Deadly Premonition is deeply unfun to play. The car you spend comically too much of the game driving is both too heavy and too light, bafflingly. The wayfinding in the game is awful, it does an awful job of signalling where side quests are available (or even that side quests are available) and, of course, the combat is atrocious, multiplied by the fact that for a majority of the game there is one enemy type, which delightfully repeats the same, let’s be generous and say six, barks (“I don’t want to diiiiiiiiiiie”)

So I want you to read all of that, and go to my Near Misses list and look at all of the amazing games that I very much did not give this spot on the list to, and think about how much I must absolutely adore the parts of this game that do work. The characters in this game are instant classics, each delightfully quirky and idiosyncratic in a way perfectly evoking David Lynch, the game’s obvious thematic inspiration. There are so many amazing moments in this game, either in their genuine emotional strikingness or due to the wave of confusion they elicit. This is a game which is so quirky and charming and fun that even in its greatest slogs, I just always wanted to see what crazy thing was behind the next corner.

If there’s one thing that Deadly Premonition absolutely oozes, in every aspect of its being, it’s earnestness. The team behind this game clearly loved it, despite its flaws and their own limitations in budget, and god dammit it shows. There’s something, I dunno, deeply charming about this game through and through, as though realistic graphics and big budgets and advanced combat systems are just layers of fog concealing the true, beating heart of a game, one which beats brightly in Deadly Premonition. I think everyone involved in Deadly Premonition had fun making it, and I’ll be damned if that feeling doesn’t pass on to me as I play it.

Fallout: New Vegas

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I don’t talk about Fallout: New Vegas as much as I want to on this blog. Depending on my mood, it’s my favorite game ever made. It’s the reason I have the Brotherhood of Steel emblem tattooed on my arm. I’ve played it a dozen times, and I’ll play it a dozen times more. Many a game has attempted to capture what makes this game great, both from franchise heads Bethesda Softworks, and New Vegas‘s own developers, but none have matched it.

Obligatory “but it isn’t perfect”s out of the way, this game is brown as hell, the combat is kinda bad, and Bethesda’s engine can’t handle large crowds of people to save its life and it shows in this game’s lackluster final battle. Besides all of that, Fallout: New Vegas is perfect to me. New Vegas is an infinitely interesting place to me, one that’s been cleverly set up to exist in a sort of deadlock at the game’s outset. Every faction in New Vegas is at a stalemate, and it’s the anarchic presence of the player that knocks down the dominoes necessary to set this world into motion. Watching your decisions ripple out and change this world is one of the great many satisfactions I get from New Vegas.

This feeling of player decisions leading to reward also exists in microcosm in the individual quests. A great many quests in this game allow for what feels in the moment to be an infinite amount of possibilities, as random relationships, perks, companions, skills, items, or whatever the player can muster can be slapped together to solve the problems of the Mojave, with the game seemingly being ready to handle any of them.

While the primary gameplay triumvirate of shoot-sneak-chat wasn’t revolutionary at New Vegas‘s launch and is even less so now, the reason this game shines is how it uses it to let you tell a version of the game’s story that feels genuinely unique. Whether you’re the brainless bruiser for Caesar’s Legion, or the nerdy coward fighting for the NCR, talking about how you played New Vegas never boils down to “I did the good path” or “I did the bad path”, it feels like a story that is genuinely yours.

Prey

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Prey claims a spot that I knew from the second I started this list would have to go to one of Arkane’s great immersive sims of the last decade. The fact that Prey has beaten out Dishonored, a game I love so much that I have the Mark of the Outsider tattooed on my arm, stands as testament to how much I love this game.

Simply put, other than some pacing issues (there’s a definite difficulty spike in the middle of the game, and an absolute difficulty crevasse at the end), there isn’t much Prey does that doesn’t blow me away. The first hour of Prey is maybe the best opening of any video game ever made, period. The retro-futurist aesthetic of the game is phenomenal. Talos-I is an infinitely interesting place to explore, cleverly designed to give up a few more secrets every time you pass through an area, filled with smart touches that make this space feel so much more real, most notably the fact that the whole station’s crew has been named, given a role, and a fate somewhere in the physical game space, a feature that draws a surprising kinship between this and Return of the Obra Dinn.

It’s really the immersive sim DNA running through this game, though, that gives it the beating, Typhon-corrupted heart that drives it all forward. An emphasis on the interactions between mechanics means that your whole time with Prey will be spent experimenting, coming up with new, clever ways to open doors, dispatch enemies, and get to places that you feel like you just maybe weren’t supposed to get to yet, giving you a real satisfaction for understanding the way the game ticks.

And none of this even touches on MooncrashPrey‘s phenomenal DLC which turns the game into a unique twist on a roguelike, in which you use the game’s systemic design to try and optimize runs through a moon base, in which you must try and get five characters to five distinct victory conditions, all sharing the same world, and the same limited resources. Mooncrash unto itself is inspired, and the fact that it’s just another piece of this fantastic game makes Prey all the stronger.

Titanfall 2

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There are three first-person shooters of various flavors on this list, but Titanfall 2 is the one which has the best moment to moment gameplay, the best control of emotion and energy on the microcosmic level that leaves your brain running a million miles an hour while you play. This game has a billion good ideas, all executed at a masterful level, all of which serve to hammer home the same beautiful, perfect thought: Go. Fast.

A pilot in Titanfall 2 is a projectile unto themselves. Running and bouncing off of walls, grappling around surfaces like a gun-toting Spiderman, sliding through doorways and beneath weapons fire, pilots are an incredible joy to move around as, and increasing in skill just results in you being able to move with greater ease, resulting in high-skill gameplay feeling a bit like you’re flying. Combine this with the extremely brilliant decision to fill the large battlefields with constant NPC warfare, which the players can swoop into like a hawk to sow chaos, and Titanfall makes good on its promise to make players feel like veritable superheroes of the battlefield.

As if this wasn’t enough unto itself, then the actual eponymous Titans get dropped into the battlefield, and the whole dynamic changes. Much like Battlefield‘s vehicles, the Titans add an additional dimension of combat to the map, but the much tighter spaces in Titanfall end up giving Titans a sense of claustrophobia in exchange for their power. Sure, you can literally crush a pilot under your heel, but there are so many little corners and angles for a pilot to come, will you even notice them when they do? Titan against Titan combat is a cacophony of ultra-powerful weaponry which will turn a passing pilot into mist, yet the agility and combat tricks of an unmounted pilot still makes them a deadly threat. Titan gameplay is interwoven deeply with on-foot gameplay in a way that just makes every fight even more interesting.

Also, for what it’s worth, the campaign is fantastic. Genuinely good characters, some fantastic gameplay gimmicks that last just long enough to make an impression without wearing out their welcome, and curated setpiece moments designed to make the most of the game’s best mechanics make the whole experience a slam dunk on top of the excellent multiplayer.

LISA: The Painful

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The funny thing is, if you search this blog for LISA: The Painful, you’ll find my review of it, one of the first things I posted here, which is actually a bit lukewarm. However, as the years go on and “quirky JRPG-inspired surrealist indie game” becomes a genre unto itself with classics like UndertaleAnodyne, and Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden, I constantly think about how good the good parts of LISA are.

A game that could be hastily described as “what if Earthbound, but the plot of Children of Men“, LISA: The Painful puts you in the shoes of Brad, a drug-addled martial arts master who is self-appointed caretaker of Buddy, the last woman alive in a post-apocalyptic surrealist wasteland. In this hunt, Brad ends up joining up with a veritable carnival of weirdos, psychopaths, and at least one fishman who end up constituting your JRPG party. Each of these party members has unique mechanics, from Brad’s fighting-game-adjacent combo system to a drunk whose abilities require him to maintain a constant buzz through the fight, all of which help spice up a Barkley-esqe active combat system.

On top of its unique combat systems, a wonderfully weird aesthetic, and a fantastic soundtrack, the thing that makes LISA truly amazing is how, even now years later, LISA is simultaneous one of the most genuinely depressing and genuinely hilarious games I’ve ever played. This game is an absolute masterpiece of writing and design, with a fantastic control of tone that uses an interactive medium to inspire genuine dread (the choices brought upon by running-antagonist Chris Columbo are mortifying), and tear-inducing laughter (the ladder and the bulldozer, for people in the know). So often writing in games genuinely fails to evoke anything, and for LISA to be able to ping pong between two vastly different tones and to nail both of them is a monolithic achievement.

Left 4 Dead 2

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Left 4 Dead 2 is my favorite co-op game of all time, period. There are so many good ideas packed into the Left 4 Dead franchise that its kind of amazing to me that it’s only recently that other games have started to take its best ideas, with homage games like Vermintide finally coming to their own. This listing is also slightly cheating, as Left 4 Dead 2 contains all of the original Left 4 Dead inside of it (and was also reskinned to make that baffling Japan-only arcade game, which I’ve also played), but that just hammers home even more how great Left 4 Dead 2 really is.

At first blush, there’s not a ton of content in Left 4 Dead 2, with the base game only including 5 campaigns of 5ish levels each, but the beauty of Left 4 Dead 2 is in its infinite replayability, both due to how much of the gameplay complexity reveals itself over multiple playthroughs, and the AI Director which mixes up the gameplay elements and constantly tweaks the difficulty of every run. As you play better and better, learning to recognize the audio cues for each Special Infected and pull off advanced tactics like crowning Witches, the game responds in kind and gets harder, meaning that the game remains a challenge at all times.

There are few co-op video game experiences I’ve enjoyed more than getting a group of my friends together and running a campaign or two of Left 4 Dead 2. The game’s use of Crescendo moments creates a delightful rhythm of panic and calm that few other co-op experiences can match, all the more fun when you toss in a few mods to, say, replace the Tank with Shrek.

There’s a certain, I dunno, purity to Left 4 Dead 2 that I also enjoy. There’s no XP or gear to get, no meters to fill. Just the same set of challenges to hurl yourself into, constantly getting harder as you get better and better. In a lot of ways, my feelings of Left 4 Dead remind me a lot of how other people talk about Spelunky: the feeling of tackling this monolithic, hostile thing, and slowly learning how it ticks.

Yakuza 0

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Kabukicho is one of my favorite places on Earth. A seedier nightlife neighborhood of Tokyo, Kabukicho is lit up like the sun all through the night, with literally hundreds of bars to choose from in a few blocks. Some are tourist traps, with bright smiles and friendly faces trying to wave in an unsuspecting Westerner to get fleeced. Some are friendly neighborhood bars beating to their own drum, calmly relaxing to jazz or blaring death metal ambivalent to the crowd outside. Some of them don’t even have signs. It’s a neighborhood I’ve been to many times, one where I’ve met a wide variety of wonderful people, had some near-misses with some bad times, and ultimately a place I’ve had numerous unforgettable adventures, and Yakuza 0 is a perfect encapsulation of that.

Yakuza 0 is a sprawling story driven by its varied cast of excellent characters. From its dual protagonists, the moral paragon to-a-fault Kazuma Kiryu and the down-on-his-luck Goro Majima, to the colorful array of passionate villains, to the myriad of total weirdos you’ll meet through the game (shoutouts to Mr. Libido, the Pants Thief, and the Bad Dominatrix), this is a game where, in both the melodramatic, sweeping crime epic of a main quest or the silly, ridiculous side stories, you’ll be driven forward by meeting a stranger and suddenly being swept into the night on an adventure that will probably end well, just like my nights in Kabukicho.

All of this is built on a mechanical framework that’s designed to just feel lightheared, silly, and just dang fun. The combat system deemphasizes execution in favor of situational awareness, rewarding perceptive players who pay attention to the environment with ridiculous, bombastic Heat Moves to bash through enemies. The legendary array of side content here is a treat, from bowling and batting cages to an underground fighting arena and an entire subplot of model car racing. It really does feel like a night out drinking: you have a plan and a goal, then suddenly someone says “LOOK, A KARAOKE BAR” and the whole thing just goes to hell.

The entire Yakuza series is a delight, and I can’t wait to delve into the later entries as the full remaster collection continues to drop. Of all of the games promising grand adventure and unforgettable moments, only Yakuza offers the kinds of grand adventure that I genuinely love in real life, the kind where you let yourself be consumed by a bustling, living city, and go wherever the flow may take you.

Hitman 2

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This one’s another partial cheat: much like Left 4 Dead 2, the entire predecessor of 2018’s Hitman 2 has been forward-ported, essentially doubling the content of the game. However, even if Hitman 2 stood alone, it would be one of the most infinitely fun and interesting games I’ve ever played, and the fact that it contains its entire, similarly wonderful predecessor ascends it to this list.

Hitman 2 is an incredible game for people who are interested in systems-driven game design. The core of this game is a logical engine, a series of rules by which these clockwork worlds abide. The first time you wander into Miami’s F1 racetrack or the busy streets of Mumbai, you’ll be bumbling around. Your kills will be messy, perhaps an axe to the face in front of a crowd of dozens. But as you play these levels, again and again, you’ll see the rules of the world laid bare. You’ll understand how they tick, and more importantly, how they respond to you.

True Hitman play begins when you enter these levels as a master, the strings which move the puppets of these sandboxes firmly in your hands. Then, you go from a bumbling, axe-wielding lunatic to the director of an elaborate play, making sure everyone is in their places for the elaborate show you have planned to go on. In some ways, Hitman 2 is, at its apex, kind of an art form? There’s something deeply satisfying about envisioning an elaborate kill and pulling it off, swiftly, with no mistakes, no matter how complex, like putting on a grand show.

On top of all of this, Hitman 2 is just genuinely hilarious. There’s something pure and beautiful about a deadpan assassin hurling a can of spaghetti sauce at an unsuspecting guard, or busting out an entire elaborate drum solo at the drop of a hat, or just wearing a big stupid toucan costume. It’s great, and just adds to the feeling of conducting a show, as you’re suddenly offered a new dimension of play, to create the stupidest deaths imaginable. Hitman 2 is just a pure delight through and through.

Pyre

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I’m a huge sucker for Supergiant Games, and of their games, Pyre stands tall as my favorite. The pitch for this game is a bit intangible at first glance. It’s hard to hear “Character-driven Purgatorial Basketball Tournament” and really have any idea what you’re getting into, but what you are getting into as a fantastic story, paired excellently with some extremely interesting gameplay systems.

Pyre takes place in a purgatorial realm called the Downside, one where criminals and convicts from a great fantasy kingdom above are literally thrown down to a world beneath for their crimes. You, the Reader, rapidly assemble a rag-tag group of criminals to participate in a thing called The Rites which… well, which essentially are a sports tournament for your freedom. The game takes place over multiple cycles of this tournament, the winning team of which gets to select a player to ascend back to the world above, their sentence ended.

This tournament structure is the crux of Pyre‘s genius. Early on, you rapidly realize the world above is maybe not governed by the most benevolent of rulers, and you and yours hatch a plan: by bringing the right people back up topside, you can attempt to stage a coup and overthrow the corrupt system which threw you down here. You can tactically choose who you want to bring up to further this goal. Or

You see, Pyre has no failure state. You can lose any given tournament. Actually, there’s a moment that happened to me where I realized not only could I lose it, I had the ability to influence who ended up in the finals (by targeting and knocking out contenders earlier in the qualifiers), then throw the final match to allow characters not in my party to ascend. And you want to do this, too: the whole cast of Pyre is so well-written, crafted with such empathy and so interesting, that you might be willing to hedge your bets to save a character who you really think deserves it. It’s up to you, if you think your revolution will succeed with one less person, you can maybe throw a tournament in favor of rescuing, say, the kind old man who’s ostensibly your opponent but has always treated you with equanimity, or a vengeful veteran of the Rites who was once given the chance to ascend but had it ruined by the actions of another.

The cast of Pyre is so powerful, and the constant choices of who to raise topside and who to leave beneath, that I was enraptured by this game from start to finish. On top of that, I enjoy the gameplay quite a bit, the artstyle is simply sublime, and the soundtrack and sound design, as is so usual with Supergiant, is one of the best in video games. Truly, a phenomenal experience.

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.