A Love Letter To The Game of My Childhood: Team Fortress 2

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February 2009. After much saving, price-hunting, waiting, and bothering my parents, I finally am able to convince my parents to split the costs of an Xbox 360 with me. This marks a transitional period of my life: prior to this point, I’d solely played games on Nintendo consoles. The Xbox 360 marked the point where I left Nintendo’s walled garden and could begin to explore the wide world of video games as a whole. And, boy, I had some catching up to do.

My first game purchases were a greatest hits collection of a console that was already experiencing its first major Golden Age, and as a child who would watch G4 while home alone on summer vacation, I knew what games I needed to pick up. Fallout 3 was my first purchase, followed closely by Mass Effect and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. As my wallet began to empty (how did I have so much spending money at age 13?), I knew that the games I was buying needed to be able to fill a lot of time. Open world games like Dead Rising and Assassin’s Creed were good choices, but I also remembered a deal unlike other: 5 games, each critically praised as masterpieces, bundled together. The Orange Box.

The Orange Box as a disk defined my adolescence. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve beaten Half Life 2, but it’s somewhere over a dozen. Portal is a masterpiece that has since been immortalized on countless “Best Games Ever” lists, but the game that I sunk the most time into was on the far right of the main menu:

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Team Fortress 2 was far from my first experience with multiplayer shooters; my friends used to meet up to play Halo at each others’ houses all through middle school. However, something about that game enraptured me unlike any other. The characters in the game had developed personalities, ones that were expressed in their gameplay (we were a good way into the Meet The Team video series by this point in time). Characters had distinct playstyles, allowing for the game to become totally different for the player just by changing classes. Most crucially of all, however, was a simple fact: games were long.

A single game on 2Fort could easily take upwards of an hour, and while there were certainly moments of tension as teams would take turns attempting to raid the enemy fort or batter down ridiculous defenses, there was also plenty of down time as players just sort of goofed off. Your Spies were in the sewers trying not to get caught, your Snipers locked in a pissing contest to see who could headshot each other the most, your Engineers just thwackin’ away at their turrets. You had time to kill.

In this time, because I was a stupid teenager, I’d get on voice chat and talk to the people in game. Normally, these interactions were, to use a modern term, completely cancerous, with people just yelling obscenities, but occasionally you’d meet some cool people, and just hang out and have fun. I met a group of people like this, and ended up joining their regular gaming group, a set of people who would just get on Team Fortress 2 together and just goof off. Sometimes we’d play seriously, and sometimes we’d hop back on 2Fort and just mess around.

I think this experience was extremely positive for me. To say nothing of positive social interaction’s benefit on a young dweeb kid, it taught me how much fun can be had playing games in a social manner. If you look at that list of games that I’d bought for my 360 prior to The Orange Box, there’s a commonality: they’re all single-player games. While I’d played Halo with my friends, that was almost always in a strictly competitive mindset. Even if playing something like Team Deathmatch, that was, in essence, a free-for-all where you aren’t allowed to shoot half of the people. Team Fortress 2 showed me how much fun it could be to form a cohesive team, to devise terrible strategies and watch them fail miserably, to learn a game’s secrets from your friends and to pass on secrets of your own.

Team Fortress 2 was built, from the ground up, to allow for this. Each character is both so mechanically distinct from one another, and so specialized, that it makes it really easy to develop brand new strategies just by forming novel configurations of classes. Each class had its subtle nuances that only veteran players of the class would know, like the various tells that could give away a Spy’s disguise, the best places to set up Engineer turrets, or the precise mechanics of stickybomb jumping as the Demoman. By having each class be so deep, it encouraged people to explore the classes and learn those secrets, and it made figuring them out make you feel like a wise old sage full of forbidden wisdom. You had traveled to the peak, and from the voice of the wind itself, only you had learned the secret of how to make the Spy walk all weird.

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This was the equivalent to knowing a secret Mason handshake

The magic to Team Fortress 2 wasn’t recaptured for me by very many other games. Valve’s own Left 4 Dead series managed to recapture that feeling of mastery, as I have blogged about previously, and Overwatch has as well, while also featuring that possibility space of strategies that’s fun to explore. However, Team Fortress 2 had both that easy-to-learn, hard-to-master complexity and the large strategic possibility space, but also had a design that encouraged low-stakes play, allowing for genuinely fun social spaces to emerge, and for players to really just have fun doing dumb things and seeing if they worked without wasting precious seconds of a short timer, or throwing the entire team back to the start of a level.

That’s the shining core of Team Fortress 2 for me. The part where you take all of the experience you have playing the game, and apply it to a game with innumerable strategic possibilities, and attempt to generate the most moronic strategy conceivable. While I’m sure I had plenty of well-executed strategies in my time of playing TF2, the moments I remember are 12 man Scout rushes, are moments where as a Spy I was in so deep I was participating in the other team’s raids on my base, and attempting to set up an Engineer’s turret deep into an enemy base. When these moments worked out, they felt like an expression of game mastery, like I was bending the mechanics to my will. When they didn’t, I was laughing at how stupid the idea was in the first place.

This, the ability to be dumb, is what makes Team Fortress 2 a masterpiece in my eyes.

 

What If We Had Concerts For Games?

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I don’t go to concerts terribly frequently, but I do really enjoy a good concert. This went doubly so for the most recent show I saw: a concert headlined by heavy metal pantheon members Iron Maiden, opened by a rising star in the metal scene and a personal favorite of mine, the Swedish band Ghost. While I obviously really enjoy the music put out by both bands, there was a commonality between the two performances, which was a noticeable amount of attention put into, I’m not sure how to put it, the things that weren’t music.

You see, both bands clearly put painstaking work into the entire experience, beyond just “play the music real good”. This is the third time I’d seen Ghost live, and as a result I’m very used to their appearance: 5 anonymous demons play the instruments behind a similarly disguised anti-Pope known to the crowd as Papa Emeritus (I should note that Ghost sings almost exclusively about the Devil).

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These costumes are very good (Papa even has two looks, allowing him to switch into something less cumbersome about halfway through the show), and that combined with the stage dressing, the ambiance (Ghost usually begins a set with about twenty minutes’ worth of Latin chanting and incense), and an assortment of other tools used to get the audience in the spirit of some good ol’ Satanic mass (my favorite being women dressed as nuns passing Communion wafers and wine to the front of the crowd).

Iron Maiden, while perhaps not as committed to their costumes as much as Ghost, still went heavy into the accouterments, featuring massive curtains featuring painted scenes depicting a sort of narrative throughout the concert, giant inflatables of band mascot Eddie, as well as the Devil, and a lumbering, lanky Eddie costume with which the lead singer engaged in a fistfight, before ripping a faux heart out of the costume and tossing it into the pit.

This concert reignited an idea I had a while ago, back when I was at South by Southwest last year: what if games went on tour? They sort of do, insofar as some companies will take their in-development games in buses on road trips to visit press, and there’s also those weird “video game party in a van” things you can rent for a children’s party.

But that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is for you to buy a ticket and go to a venue, along with a large crowd of other people, to play a video game.

So, much like a show where a band just plays their song and leaves, just going to a concert hall and sitting down for just a regular ol’ game is boring. I’m not gonna buy a $25 ticket and drive to Deep Ellum (a Dallas neighborhood known for music venues, for those not in the DFW area) for a glorified LAN party with bad air conditioning, and neither is anyone else.

I don’t 100% know what this idea done right looks like, but I have ideas. For starters, going to a concert where you don’t know the band is never as fun as one where you do and can belt out all of the words. Ghost concerts are usually good for this, as the band is niche enough that people who seek them out and go to the shows are dedicated enough fans to know the relatively small discography, and that feeling of chanting along with a whole crowd and the band is really cool. Even if you don’t necessarily know the band, a lot of more crowd-oriented concerts make picking up what the crowd is “supposed to do” as easy as possible, with an extreme example being a lot of Blue Man Group shows.

For games, this means that you either need to be playing a game that the crowd has already played before, or can pick up extremely easily. Simpler control schemes and familiar genre trends are probably going to be favorable here, instead of trying to get a sweaty crowd of people well versed in Crusader Kings 2 in a couple of hours.

Speaking of which, obvious requirement: length! Whatever you have to play needs to be able to be a complete experience in a couple of hours, and needs to end cleanly by the end of a concert. Imagine being at a concert and halfway through your favorite song when all of a sudden the lights come up and a roadie tells you to go home. The end of the event needs to feel like the end, not just the point where time is up. Although, as an aside, you could have multiple, small games building to a climatic finale.

The key, I’d imagine, is that you need to try and harness the coolest part of the best concerts, which is that sense of being in a sort of positive feedback loop between the performance and the crowd. You know when you’re at a concert and the crowd is just all going wild and you can tell the band is noticing and just feeding off of it? Obviously, a video game cannot in any way harness that raw emotional energy, but what you can do is pick or make a game that meaningfully changes when exposed to a large amount of players.

Consider EVO, or other video game competitions. While games are certainly at the center of these events, in my opinion, the games are merely the setting for the skillful interaction between players. You’re not competing in or even watching EVO because you just really like Street Fighter, you’re really there for the interactions of players. And while the crowd can certainly behave like a concert pit at EVO, they’re not playing. That’s not what I’m interested in.

What this leads me to believe is that a game played live should be a collaborative experience, one where this group of strangers works together, earnestly, toward a common goal, like when the audience at a concert sings in unison to a song they all like. These are the moments that stick out to me at a concert. Imagine being in a group of 1000 Minecraft players, all working together to build a single massive structure (technical issues aside). Imagine playing in a 1000-piece Rock Band band, like a plastic version of the Rockin’ 1000. Hell, imagine a 1000 man World of Warcraft raid, or a 1000 man game of Johann Sebastian Joust (I know this is competitive, but JBJ is a game that definitely changes meaning based on the number of people in the game).

Earnestness would be key. You can’t have griefers in your massive collaborative Minecraft game, nor someone embarrassed to mumble some Foo Fighters lyrics into one of your 250 plastic microphones. I also don’t think an emphasis on “being good” is healthy for the experience either, or else people will be afraid to even go to such an event for fear of embarrassing themselves.

Imagine, though. If there’s one thing that, in my opinion, games have done really bad, it’s gameplay moments en masse. Even games that we tout as “massive”, like Battlefield, usually feature no more than 64 players at a time, spread out over a huge map. Imagine 500 people simultaneously storming the beaches of Normandy in a Battlefield-like game. Environmental sound is piped through the entire venue. The people directly around you are put in a squad with you, and you form an impromptu bond as you save each other from virtual peril and work as a team.

Of course, this idea is still extremely vague, and has massive technical problems (how are you going to get that many consoles or PCs in a room, and it sounds like a fucking technical nightmare, although networking might be slightly easier than having as many machines connect wirelessly over long distances). However, I think that games have the potential to harness the positive power of the concert as a medium, even if it’d require a lot of work.

Deadly Premonition Is Either The Best or Worst Game I’ve Ever Played

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Deadly Premonition is…well, a lot of things. It’s an open-world third-person murder mystery game in which an FBI agent is trying to solve a murder in a small town somewhere vaguely in the northern states? It’s also the game that put creative director Swery 65 on the map as an innovative and creative force in the game development scene. However, most pressingly to me, it’s somehow simultaneously really good and really bad.

Let me clarify. In short, here’s a list of things that I think are really good in Deadly Premonition:

  • The story is gripping, interesting, and is far from typical video game fare
  • The characters are interesting in how bizarre so many of them are, and I was constantly dying to learn more about the people and the town of Greenvale
  • The game sets up really interesting antagonists, that manage to remain mysterious and ambiguous
  • The worldbuilding and the extent that the game goes to establish a sense of this world being real (characters have Skyrim-style schedules, and things like changing your clothes and shaving are given gameplay significance)
  • The game actually has a really solid mastery of tone. Even when it experiences a whiplash-inducing shift from morbid to comedic or nonchalant, that still feels fitting to the characters and the game

And here are some things I think are really bad:

  • Combat is very unsatisfying. Single enemies pose 0 threat, as they can just be stunlocked to death. More than, say, two enemies is meanwhile ball-bustingly difficult, as the enemies high movement speed and the cumbersome aiming controls makes it hard to manage the whole group. Combine this with the fact that there is only one enemy type until the fifth dungeon, and I ended up dreading combat
  • The dungeons are big enough to take a while to clear (probably about an hour a dungeon), but contain very few interesting things within them to make that size feel justified
  • Some of the sidequests are so minimal as to be laughable. One sidequest literally required me to walk four steps and press a button, and I completed it
  • On the whole, the town of Greenvale is stretched across this giant map, but it’s stretched very thin. Getting from anywhere to anywhere else tends to be a long drive, which would be fine for setting mood if it weren’t for the fact that the cars are slow and drive like garbage

And yet, despite this disparity between elements, I stayed up until 4 AM last night binging the game until I beat it. I’ve been shamelessly shouting on social media for my friends to buy it (a request made simpler during the Steam Summer Sale). I’ve been thinking about it endlessly since, enough that I’m now writing this post.

What Deadly Premonition represents to me is the endearing power of going for something. This is a game that’s designed by people who clearly had a goal in mind, and dreamed up this impossible combination of Silent Hill and Twin Peaks into this bizarre and beautiful murder mystery game. The things that are bad in the game all have a common theme, which is that the team just seemed to dream too big for their budget and timeframe. It’s pretty easy to imagine a Deadly Premonition with all of the rough edges finely filed down to a neat and tidy perfection, and that game could have been a genuine classic.

But, that’s not the game we got. Deadly Premonition is full of jank, but you know what? I think there’s a lesson there. I think if you have an idea for a game that your passionate about, that’s unique and interesting and really something close to you, I think Deadly Premonition is an argument that maybe, you shouldn’t wait for the prime moment where your time, money, and skills will allow you to make precisely the game of your dreams. Maybe you should just go for it, and know that your passion will shine through any other imperfections and make an interesting game that people will love.

Also, go buy Deadly Premonition.

E3 2017 Analysis: Not Very Surprising, Except For The Insane Surprises

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I emerge, eyes red and tear-stained, from my E3 bunker. I have watched every presser. I watched every reveal. I even saw that panda dab. I gazed into the Great Abyss and drew the attention of Gods New and Old, and with my very sanity stretched thin by knowledge most Eldritch, I have peered into the future. The future of video games.

So yeah, E3 this year is weird. I feel like last year and the year prior were real strong for the show, with lots of great announcements. Last year we got Death StrandingResident Evil 7God of WarPrey, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Quake Champions. The year prior was even bigger, with Fallout 4Dishonored 2The Last Guardian, the Final Fantasy 7 remaster, Shenmue 3Nier: Automata….it was really almost a cacophany of announcements.

And this year was…well, it was mostly a bunch of trailers for games we already knew about, wasn’t it? To be fair, some of that was due to significant leaks (notably for Assassin’s Creed Origins and Mario + Rabbids), but another major part of that is developers’ increasing nonreliance on E3 to make announcements. Following a path that I think was lead by Nintendo, many studios are just announcing things on their own terms, instead of trying to compete in the Major League Headline playoffs of mid-June. Like I said, it was kind of a cacophany. Now, especially if you’re not announcing some-AAA game that already has a massive following, it’s probably best just to announce it on, like, some Tuesday in March and not even worry about competing headlines.

So, with no real rhyme or reason to the ordering, here are my thoughts on the more interesting things I saw from E3 2017.

Bioware Presents Destiny

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Anthem was the only thing out of EA’s otherwise usually boring presser that I found remotely interesting, and even then I have reservations.

On one hand, I do really like Bioware, even still, and knowing that this is, presumably, the Bioware A-team working on it (since we know that core Bioware wasn’t working on Mass Effect Andromeda) gives me hope. I’m also a sucker for games with really good traversal mechanics, and being able to fly around in a sick robot suit could be really fun, especially if you get to use that in combat as well as simply for traversal. Customizing those suits sounds really cool too, like having Tony Stark’s collection of Iron Man suits. If those suits feel distinct (which, certainly, that big tanky one felt distinct in the trailer), having that playstyle variety could be fun.

But, on the flip side, this trailer was a little light on story and seemed to pretty heavily infer a Destiny-esqe, MMO-inspired sort of minimalist story structure. While it’s kind of ridiculous to infer a whole game’s structure from an E3 stage demo, there was a lot of talk of “finding your own adventures” and “making stories with your friends”, and not a lot of mention of characters, which are kind of what I go to Bioware games for. That’s not to mention the prominent display of loot, mic chatter reminiscent of raiding, and what appeared to be a raid, giving me sort of a sour feeling about the structure of this game.

After A Year, We Finally Have An Assassin’s Creed Game That’s Totally The Same

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I miss being excited for Assassin’s Creed. The first game had a really cool premise and unique gameplay mechanics for stealth and parkour. The second gave you a really full open world full of stuff to do, added mission variety and stronger characters, and refined the combat. Brotherhood stitched the world together into a more cohesive whole and even added some surprisingly good multiplayer. The third, which a lot of people poop on but I like, added even greater variety to the missions, naval combat, a wilderness, ranged combat, and the most fluid combat in the series.

And then after Assassin’s Creed 3, my interest in the series waned severely. Black Flag just doubled down on the naval combat without adding anything significantly new, and Unity was a buggy mess. I’ve heard Syndicate is actually pretty good, although the introduction of a heavy focus on gear and XP by this point in the series, I felt, was a band-aid on a severed leg. The Assassin’s Creed gameplay needs an injection of creative life, something new, a step equal in scope to the difference between the first and Assassin’s Creed 2, or 2 and 3.

Origins does not look like that leap. Instead, it looks like, well, some more Assassin’s Creed. You jump off of buildings and stab dudes, you hide in bushes, you strafe around dudes and parry them. There are cool additions, like being able to control arrows mid-flight (???) and the eagle, which allows you spot enemies and cool stuff in advance, but nothing revolutionary. In fact, the most different thing I noticed was the fact that you have to manually aim the bow instead of locking on.

Look, I want to like Assassin’s Creed Origins. Real bad, actually. But I need something significant, something new. I know fanboys have been banging this drum for, what, like 7 years now, but maybe if you refocused on the actual assassinations, on gathering intel and scoping out settings, or maybe if you fleshed out the guild leadership elements, maybe I’ll be back in on this series? But for now, I can’t help shaking the feeling that I played this game back in 2012.

However, side note, I’m super genuinely happy for Ashraf Ismail. Dude seems super stoked to be heading this project, and I’m genuinely happy to see people get the reins on a series that they love, and I hope I’m totally wrong and this game is awesome. Also, having an Arabic creative director for a game set in Ancient Egypt is a good thing.

Historically Accurate Russia Simulator 2017

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I…should probably play the Metro games. This looks really cool, although I’m curious to see how it differentiates itself from other open-world survival-themed first-person shooters. Although, since I haven’t played the Metro games, maybe that’s a stupid question. I definitely like the theme and aesthetic, though.

Bethesda’s First Bad Press Conference

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This is Bethesda’s third E3 press conference, and, well, they’re 2 for 3, I guess?

Bethesda came out super strong their first year. A massive Fallout 4 reveal, combined with the Dishonored 2 announcement and the first big public appearance of DOOM generated a lot of hype, and all three of those games ended up extremely strong.

Last year’s presser, while not quite so star-studded, still had a solid line-up. The “surprising new reveals” slots were taken up by Arkane’s excellent Prey reboot and the somewhat controversial Quake: Champions, with a solid back line of Fallout 4 VR and Skyrim: Special Edition announcements. Even if it wasn’t as surprising, they were still showing some games people loved, as well as new stuff.

And this year, we got…Fallout 4 VR again? Which is definitely still happening, I guess, but it’s not all that exciting now. We’ve got another Skyrim rerelease on the way, which is great, I guess. There’s a Dishonored 2 DLC pack expanding on a character I really like from the base game, but it got so little airtime that I had to Google what it actually was. The only real exciting announcements were sequels to The Evil Within and WolfensteinThe New Order, which while interesting, weren’t able to generate the same excitement as older reveals. The New Colossus looks cool, but in the end, it also looks like another MachineGames Wolfenstein game.

So, I guess I’m just sad this presser didn’t have more surprises, more things that left me begging for more details. It was just a lot of stuff that looked like stuff we’ve seen before.

“I Will Never Be Excited For A Fucking Mario/Rabbids Crossover” – Me, Incorrectly, A Week Ago

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Ok, I’m sorry, what? The biggest franchise in video games teams up with Ubisoft’s weird proto-Minions, who haven’t had a game on this console generation other than a basically unnoticed TV show tie in, and they all get guns, which is weird enough. I think all of us saw these leaks a week ago and went “This is totally unnecessary, who cares?”

Then the gameplay comes up on the screen and this thing is a goddamn turn-based strategy game a la XCOM and I literally got on my phone to see if Switches were in stock on Amazon. What? Fucking what? It’s a squad-based tactics game??!?

Sold. Deal. Ignoring the fact that the encapsulated turn-based fights of an XCOM sort of game could be great for taking on the go on the Switch, just the idea of incorporating platformer elements, of incorporating Mario gameplay into one of these sorts of games is super interesting to me. I hope they go super weird with it, and I hope they manage to keep that Mario feel through the genre shift.

The most amazing thing about this game is that it was only the second weirdest Mario reveal this E3.

Far Cry 5 Is Definitely A Far Cry Game

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I’m very interested in the characters, world, and new gameplay mechanics of Far Cry 5, which were completely ignored in its E3 outing in favor of showing some tried and true Far Cry: tagging enemies, stealth, cars, guns. Jeff Gerstmann of Giant Bomb postulated that this trailer was way more focused on the dumb parts of the game to draw attention away from the political controversy this game inspired, which might be the case, but it’s a shame, because that controversial stuff, about the perversion of middle America, is what I was interested in.

This trailer does hint at something reminiscent of the buddy system from Far Cry 2, and if that’s the case, I’ll definitely be paying attention to this game. I’d love an evolution of that system, but I’ll have to wait and see.

The World of Beyond Good and Evil 2 Is Dope

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Ubisoft talked so little about what the actual gameplay of Beyond Good and Evil 2 is, that I don’t really wanna talk about it for long. However, I did want to call out that the art direction for this game, especially the above scene, is fantastic, and I really hope the gameplay is as creative as that cinematic trailer implied. I would love to be a Cockney monkey Bionic Commando.

Please Stop Making Me Uninterested In Marvel vs Capcom Infinite

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The trailer for Marvel vs Capcom Infinite shown at E3, unfortunately, seems to continue to validate the disappointing roster which was supposedly leaked earlier this year, with the inclusion of the predicted Gamora, Thanos, Doctor Strange, and Arthur. Also consistent with the leak is the lack of any X-Men, probably due to the licensing feud between Fox and Marvel’s cinematic division. Although, I will note that the story trailer does include Zero, who is not listed among the leaked characters (albeit the leak does note that a single Capcom character is yet unidentified), and Black Panther, although neither is shown in actual gameplay.

Look, I love this franchise a lot, and I want it to be good, but if the roster is as slim as the leak insinuates, and consists of so many returning characters, I’m going to be much less interested. On top of this, the characters that make me love Marvel vs Capcom are those obscure characters, the weird ones like Phoenix Wright, MODOK, Frank West, and Doctor Strange. Having Infinite serve singularly as an advertising vehicle for the MCU means less of those fun, obscure heroes, and that seriously bums me out.

Nintendo Makes Me Want To Buy A Switch In Five Minutes

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This year, the theme for Nintendo’s Spotlight event was “Announcing Things You Love At Bewildering Speed”. Disappointed that we didn’t announce a mainline Pokemon for the Switch at our Treehouse last week? Well, we’re doing that! Want more details? Well, fuck you, because we’re already talking about how we’re making a new Metroid game, a Metroid Prime game no less, after you all thought Metroid was dead and gone! That announcement’s going to be twenty seconds long, though, because we need to make room for all of this charming and adorable Kirby and Yoshi footage!

Literally, Nintendo went from having 2 core franchise releases for the Switch to, what, six? Especially considering that Breath of the Wild was such a blockbusting release, this speaks really well to the line-up for the Switch. Oh, and speaking of which…

SUPER MARIO ODYSSEY IS A FUCKING BEAUTIFUL NIGHTMARE

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Mario’s hat is possessed by a magic hat ghost that allows him to possess, via hat, things that he encounters on his journey on his world-hopping airship on his quest to rescue Peach from Bowser and his team of evil wedding planners. On this journey, Mario will journey on worlds ranging from a regular metropolitan city to an icy wonderland to a Latin-inspired desert, and be able to assume the forms of such allies as: a taxi cab, a T-Rex, electricity, and a fucking normally proportioned human, in a magic ritual which bestows upon its target a Mario hat and mustache.  There’s also some sort of fashion mechanic to the game and, just to reiterate, the New York-style metropolis is still called New Donk City.

NONE OF THE WORDS I TYPED ARE JOKES.

….I have to buy a Switch, don’t I?

A York By Any Other Name

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This isn’t going to be a full post, so much as a callout for something I really like in SWERY 65’s cult classic, Deadly Premonition. I’m playing through the game right now, and on top of the fantastic story, bizarre characters, and truly interesting focus on the pedestrian, one of the things I like the most about this game is the way it hyperfocuses on perhaps one of the most mundane parts of human conversation: introductions.

In Deadly Premonition, players assume the role of FBI Agent Francis York Morgan, who insists upon meeting almost every character in the game to “call me York. Please, everyone calls me that”. York is a real weird dude, constantly referring directly to the player as an imaginary friend named Zach, going on for far too long about classic movies, and discussing grisly murder with an unsettling lack of tact, and yet this introduction thing is maybe one of the weirdest things about him. It might be how persistent he is about it, or just how perfectly rehearsed it is every time, like he’s really done this for every person he’s ever met in his adult life.

Backing up for a minute, Deadly Premonition has a fairly wide supporting cast, and since the game is a murder mystery, they’re all relatively important, since literally all of them are potential suspects (the game goes so far as to just label characters you haven’t met “Suspect”). So, giving these characters distinct and memorable personalities is fairly important, and the game has a fantastic shorthand way to remind you of every character’s relationship to York: what name they give him.

You see, having such a wordy name as “FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan”, in conjunction with the insistence that York be called, well, York, means that characters can actually demonstrate a lot through the way they refer to York. For example, Sheriff George Woodman, the head of the police department in this small town, is very hostile towards York’s commandeering of this investigation, but is still helpful to York’s efforts. This is encapsulated by the way he refers to York as “Agent Morgan”. By referring to the title of “Agent”, George is acknowledging York’s seniority and his command of this investigation, but by calling York “Morgan”, instead of the more friendly and preferred “York”, George reminds York, and the player, that he doesn’t like York much at all.

Harry Stewart, meanwhile, is the town’s resident eccentric millionaire, who wears a horrifying mask and communicates solely via manservant. Whenever Harry appears to give York cryptic advice and clues in regards to the murder investigations, he precedes every thought with “Mr. Francis York Morgan”. A few character traits are communicated here. First, Harry is weird, weird enough to use this extremely wordy way of addressing York multiple times in a conversation. Secondly, Harry doesn’t have much regard for the authority of the police or even the FBI, ignoring the title of “Agent” entirely in this name. Third, Harry is not friendly with York, despite the fact that he’s generally an aid to him, as he is not using the friendly moniker of simply “York”. Lastly, you know that despite all of this, Harry treats York with some regard, as this name is extremely formal and respectful, especially when you consider Harry doesn’t even acknowledge other authority figures like George in the scenes they share.

So, I guess, the takeaway from this is that writers and designers shouldn’t ignore the powerful communicative potential of mundane human interactions, as even those have the potential to do some heavy lifting for complicated plots.

Classifying RPGs Mechanically With The Tabletop RPG Triangle

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Categorizing tabletop RPGs can be kind of difficult. There is such a variety of them, and they play in such different ways, that coming up with meaningful methods of comparison is…difficult.

I’m not talking about genre or setting here, either. It’s, in fact, relatively easy to categorize RPGs into fantasy, sci-fi, superhero, or what have you. What is quite a bit harder, in my experience, is to categorize them by mechanics.

This is something those in the video game space take for granted, as that field began as solely mechanics, and had the stories come in over time. Thus, at the start of the medium, the only way there was to categorize games meaningfully was mechanics. That’s how we got “platformers”, “adventure games”, and later, things like “RPGs”, “strategy games”, and “first-person shooters”. All of these genres, while admittedly pretty vague and muddled, offer an idea for how a game plays.

The setting-based labels we provide for tabletop RPGs are less useful in that regards. Fantasy is a genre which includes Dungeons and DragonsDungeon World, and Burning Wheel, but those games play nothing alike. The same could be said of Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars line, Eclipse Phase, and Numenera, despite the fact that they are all “science fiction”.

In fact, the only meaningful gameplay-based distinctions I can think of in my mind are “OSR”, which describes a minimalist, rulings-over-rules mentality usually accompanied with punishing combat, an emphasis on logical problem solving, and random tables, and “story game”, which tends to describe games with minimized rules which are focused on telling a very specific type of story. These two categories cover only a subset of tabletop RPGs, however, leaving us with a massive third category of “The Rest”, which is basically useless.

With that in mind, I’ve started to think about the way I end up describing role-playing games to my friends, and tried to make that congeal into an actual system with which one can try and describe, broadly, the actual mechanics of the way a game works. This system, then, is tentatively called the Tabletop RPG Triangle.

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The idea is relatively simple: the mechanics of tabletop RPGs can be described as some mixture of the three above attributes: Comprehensive, Universal, and Simple.

Simple means that the written rules are computation light and fairly intuitive. There aren’t a lot of modifiers to be accounted for, not a lot of dice rolls required for single actions, and multiple types of action are resolved using the same game mechanics.

Universal means that the written rules are not bound to any given setting, and instead set out to just provide a general framework for any sort of character doing any sort of thing. The rules don’t emphasize the creation of characters towards any particular archetype.

Comprehensive is perhaps the most unintuitive of the three descriptors, and describes having rules which aim to cover every situation which characters could expect to find themselves in (even if those rules end up similar to other situations). Basically, the book sets out to describe what should happen in any likely gameplay scenario.

The idea is that you can specialize in one of these descriptors, have a strong emphasis in two of them, or be a kind of muddled mixture of all three, but you can’t go whole hog into all three. If a game is simple and comprehensive, it probably isn’t universal: a game that aims to be easy to understand and cover a lot of ground within it’s theme probably has a very narrow theme, lest it overwhelm the reader with options and lose its simple status (I might think of something like Fiasco, which pretty exclusively deals with Coen Brother-esqe comedic tragedies). Meanwhile, a game that is universal and comprehensive is probably going to be a massive mound of rules (gestures towards the D20 system).

For an example, here are a few of the systems I run and play in, plotted on the Triangle, according to my experience with the systems and thoughts on them:

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Fifth Edition Dungeons and Dragons aims for a pretty solid mix of comprehensiveness and simplicity, mostly as a reaction to 3.5 Edition’s rules gluttony. The skill check comprises most every situation in the game, with a relatively minor number of modifiers, and while the game does try to set out rules for all manner of adventuring situations, it doesn’t really like you playing outside of the bounds of D&D style, big damn heroes adventuring, especially when it comes to pidgeonholing you into class roles, so it’s pretty far from universal.

3.5 and Pathfinder, however, are basically a mirror image, focusing on universality and comprehensiveness. Wanna play a pirate with guns in space? Yeah, sure, there’s a supplement for that. How about some dark fantasy with Cthulhu monsters, except everyone’s a ninja. Yeah, sure! Wanna fight Shrek at the bottom of the ocean? Sure, whatever, I think he’s in Bestiary 5. Just, you know, get ready to cross-reference feat descriptions, combat modifiers, and the contents of about four different supplemental books.

Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars rules, however, are maybe one of the closest-to-the-middle rulesets I play with regularly. It’s certainly not universal (you’re gonna be playing Star Wars no matter what), but it lets you play a lot of different kinds of stories within that universe. The rules aren’t necessarily super easy, but the complexity is mostly front-loaded when you learn the system. Finally, the game sets out to try and provide mechanics for basically anything ever done in a Star Wars movie, from dogfighting to the Force to building lightsabers to hacking droids, making it kind of a blend of all three.

The third edition of Shadowrun, however, is closest to a point of the triangle compared to any other game I play with. The game is not very universal at all: you’re going to be playing criminals doing crime in a fantasy cyberpunk world, or at least someone interacting regularly with the criminal underworld. The rules are not simple in the least (gestures angrily to two damn pages of rules for throwing explosives), but no matter what you want to to in the world of Shadowrun‘s criminals-for-hire, there are rules for doing it, and for really digging into the nitty-gritty of it. I mean, there are rules for racism, for god’s sake.

Finally, Cypher System is literally the definition of simple and universal. It is, by definition, settingless, trying to provide a framework to let anyone do anything, and literally all the rules boil down into basically the same single die roll. However, even when you begin to introduce slightly unusual situations into the game, it just sorta shrugs and goes “Fuck it, man, house rule it”.

This system is by no means perfect, and even as I write this I find myself having umbridge with it and thinking of counterexamples, but the fact of the matter is that we as tabletop RPG players, and as liasons for the hobby, need a better way to describe the way these games play, at least in shorthand.

When new players get in to the hobby, especially after they play their first game (which, let’s be honest here, is going to be Dungeons and Dragons), we need a way to help them navigate these games and jump off to other games they might enjoy, and using setting as that navigational aid isn’t going to work. These are games, and ultimately the mechanics define a player’s experience with the game much more than the setting, so we need some sort of language with which to communicate those differences. The Triangle is not meant to be the solution, but it is meant to at least inspire someone to come up with their own ideas.

 

It’s Really Kill or Be Killed In The Last of Us

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“Whoa, Michael, a The Last of Us piece? What is this, 2013?”

//This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us

In my quest to play a bunch of good video games I missed over my college career, I finally played Naughty Dog’s masterpiece, The Last of Us. Now, this is definitely some well-weathered ground for in-depth analysis, so I want to talk about something that I remember being mentioned, but really struck me as I played the game: the lethality.

Much in the way I talked about how Prey really hammers home its concept of curiosity and exploration, it feels like the mechanics of The Last of Us are all laser-focused towards this theme of being forced to confront death. The story echoes this theme through every act, and our characters are defined by it. Joel spends the game dealing with his daughter’s death, and Ellie spends it dealing with the fact that everyone around her seems to die.

This theme is carried into the mechanics with gusto. While I was playing, I was surprised how many ways the player gets to instantly kill things. Between driving a shiv into someone’s neck, nailing them with a headshot, throwing molotovs and nail grenades at enemies, or just running up to them and strangling them, there are plenty of ways to just wipe an enemy right out.

It’s really the melee executions that hammer this point home, though. For comparison, look at this video of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate gameplay. This is a game so about murdering people that it’s literally the first word in the title, but look at the way characters die. Once they enter the assassination animation, they just sort of lie there and die. They don’t really resist, and a single attack results in immediate, mostly clean death.

Now look at this compilation of Joel’s melee kills in The Last of Us. Not only do these hits feel really weighty, but the camera actually adjusts itself to force you to look at whoever you’re killing who, more often then not, is frozen in a look of horror as they’re trying desperately not to be killed. The stealth choke animation is the worst offender, as the character blindly grabs around, trying desperately to stop choking to death but eventually falling limp.

These melee kills are fundamentally sort of unsettling. They take long enough, and angle the camera just so that the player is forced to confront the fact that Joel is really violently murdering this person (and, despite the fact that the game prominently features non-human enemies, more often than not you’re fighting perfectly healthy humans), and this person is really trying to not die. That goes doubly so in the sections where you play as Ellie, as her executions are much sloppier and thus, much more excruciating to watch.

This is one thing, but the combat in the game is designed to funnel you towards these melee executions, to force you into watching them. Ammo is scarce, so if you’ve run out of ammo you’re forced to perform these, and if you haven’t you’ll want to anyways to conserve ammo. Furthermore, while the game emphasizes stealth, this isn’t some Dishonored-style game where you can sneak past everyone without harming a fly. No, the stealth in this game serves only to allow you to kill more advantageously, taking on enemies one at a time and on your own terms rather than in big mobs. Ultimately, if you’re going to try and handle fights in the most advantageous way, staying alive and minimizing resource loss, you’re going to be strangling a lot of dudes to death, which means you’re going to be watching a lot of people struggle as they choke to death.

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This learned behavior, in which the player is incentivised to kill people in the most violently personal way possible, ties back to the game as a whole in a couple of ways. For starters, it casts a certain light on the way Joel and, later, Ellie handle living surviving in this world, especially when the game presents examples of people who manage to survive without violently murdering everyone they meet. This, in turn, ends up serving as characterization in action: Joel’s personality and priorities are revealed as you see for what reasons he’s willing to commit violent acts, and Ellie’s process of growing up and becoming used to this world are visualized as she changes from naive teenager to gun-toting murderer (not that she’s unjustified when she really starts to spill blood).

The game also makes sure to never let these kills go unremembered. Characters frequently, and justifiably, attempt to kill Joel and Ellie after the two of them slaughter entire parties of the character’s friends and comrades, only to die themselves, leading to this sort of ouroboros of murder in which situations get decidedly worse because of how ruthlessly Joel and Ellie killed the last group of foes. An entire act of the story basically consists of a group attempting to get payback on Joel and Ellie for killing an entire hunting party of their friends and family, and while that group ends up being pretty thoroughly in the wrong themselves, it’s hard to say that their initial motives are unjustified. When a character refers to Joel as “a crazy man”, you end up agreeing with him on a certain level. By the time the end credits roll, Joel definitely seems like someone who needs to work some stuff out.

Because that is, in the end, what the entire game, especially the violence, is in service of: Joel. The entire game is a character study of Joel as he goes through this journey, and ultimately every part of his being is defined by that violence: his experience in the post-apocalyptic wilderness, his desire to protect those he cares about, his determination to finish his mission, his disdain for the military government, and his own inability to let go, are all shown to the player in every violent murder. By creating mechanical incentive for players to play the game in this ultraviolent way, the game forces players to both understand why Joel is this way, but also, to be sort of repulsed by his actions, a union of empathy and disgust that few other games can create.