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.

 

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.

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.

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.

Open Design and the Thrill of the Hunt in Prey

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//This article contains spoilers to Prey (2017)

So, my academic career is, for the foreseeable future, over, and while I wait for my start date at my new job, I have all summer to relax, collect myself, and play some video games. What this meant for me was that I had a chance to catch up on those games I missed while I was in the trenches of my senior year, and I started with Arkane Studios’s Prey.

The fact that I adore this game isn’t particularly news. Arkane’s cornerstone series up to this point, Dishonored, is a series I adore so much I had the Mark of the Outsider tattooed on my arm. The game’s inspirations are not only Dishonored but other games I adore: BioshockDead Space, and System Shock being some of the strongest influences. Also, it’s a semi-open world game with great art direction, a unique premise, and strong mechanical focus, which, lemme check, yep, that is in fact a Bingo.

I wanna talk about Prey‘s mechanics, mostly because that’s my forte, and I don’t really have the qualifications to discuss the philosophy or literary pedigree of its premise or ending.  What I like so much about Prey is that, tip to tail, it’s a game about finding your own way. Every aspect of the game, from the mechanics to the story, funnels directly towards the central theme of solving a mystery.

For instance, take the quest design. I know I said I wouldn’t talk about the story, but I need to a little bit in order to describe why I love the way that the quest system works in the game. You see, to say that Prey has an unreliable narrator isn’t totally correct: the protagonist, the impeccably named Morgan Yu, is very reliable, in that he reliably has no idea what the hell is happening. Rather, what the game has is, to steal a term from systems design, multiple sources of truth.

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You as the player receive quests from January, a robotic operator that Morgan himself programmed (to the point of giving it his own voice) to aid the now-amnesiac Morgan of the present in resolving the Talos I problem in a very specific way. In fact, you watch a video that past Morgan recorded in which he basically says “Yeah, believe January, he’s the legit one”. However, another operator, December, who also speaks with your voice, ends up coming along and proposing literally the exact opposite solution. As if this wasn’t bad enough, your brother, Alex Yu, proposes a third solution unrelated to the first two, one which is also accompanied by a video of past-Morgan signing off on it.

So, while plenty of games give you the option of pursuing one of multiple endings to the main story, but separate them morally, Prey gives you similar option, but literally doesn’t tell you which one is right. While this could be seen as frustrating, like the game is tricking you, the game doesn’t then turn around and go “Hah, you picked the fake one, dumbass”, but instead feels like it judges your choice appropriately given the amount of information you’re given. The inclusion of multiple paths to the ending feel less like arbitrarily deciding “this will be my asshole playthrough”, and more like you’re actually taking a crack at solving the mystery. The branching quest design actually ties into the core themes.

Furthermore, Prey encourages you to try and solve mysteries in the game world, even if they aren’t pertinent to the main quest, especially in regards to the people on board Talos I. Since Talos I was a sci-fi corporate entity, they had tracking bracelets for every employee on board to enable them to be tracked. This location data can be accessed via a security-enabled terminal by the player, meaning that the player has the means to track down the locations of every single crew member on board the ship (or, at least, their tracking bracelet).

This is amazing. For starters, it’s such a good way to create a sense of realism on board this station, since instead of having nameless, faceless corpses littering the hallways like some sort of macabre decorations, every corpse has a name, and vice versa, every name haphazardly mentioned in an email or emblazoned outside an office door can be tied to a body. Furthermore, it means that Prey feels free to give the player tons of miniature objectives (such as hearing that someone took more than their requisitioned amount of ammo when they went out), and letting the player hunt them down and claim the rewards naturally, instead of engorging their quest log with tiny little meaningless quests. Again, it’s all about solving mysteries, but the fluidity of this system, combined with the fact that you as the player have to opt-in to them, mean that you actually feel like you’re discovering, hunting down, and solving these tiny stories instead of having them spoon-fed to you.

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That’s enough about the quest system. Prey also excels in that feeling of trying to find things out extends out even towards the combat and traversal mechanics. The fact that the first real gun the game gives you, the GLOO Gun, is arguably infinitely more useful as a traversal tool than as a weapon speaks to how much Prey wants you to explore with its systems and the physical world.

When you first start Prey, you feel like a completely powerless weakling as the base enemies are more than capable of completely ruining your day. Your weapons aren’t terribly effective, and the ones that are run out of bullets almost immediately. Enemies seem to appear out of nowhere, and running from them seems to have an equal chance of you running into more danger as you going home free.

As the game progresses, you end up feeling more powerful in normal video game ways: your guns get better, you get more ammo, you get better guns, etc. But despite that, the game also uses that sense of exploration and mechanical focus to provide the same feeling.

There was a point, about halfway through the game, where I found myself facing down a new area to explore with extremely few resources. So, since the game heavily encourages backtracking, thanks to some puzzles that can only be solved with late-game skills in a manner vaguely reminiscent of a Metroidvania, I decided to go back to older areas and try to scrounge up what I needed to move forward.

When I was going through those old areas, I found something interesting. Since I was fairly familiar with the areas and their layout, instead of feeling like I was getting jumped by enemies, I was instead jumping them, knowing how to sneak around enemies and surprise them from obscure corners or leading them into turret traps I had left before.

Furthermore, I was much more resourceful in these fights, using knowledge I’d gained in experimenting with the combat to beat enemies using only the environment. My inquisitiveness was being rewarded by the game.

When I first walked through these zones, I felt like a horror movie protagonist, slow and careful. Now that I had taken the time to explore the area, to play around with the mechanics, and to gain a better understanding of the resources in the area, my second time through I felt like Batman, or perhaps more fittingly, like a Xenomorph sneaking through the ventilation ducts.

I think that’s where Prey shines. Prey has a central idea: the player should explore this world in the way they so choose, and we should reward them for doing so. By facilitating this in every way the game can, it leads to this feeling where the player really feels like they are figuring the game out their own way, and not just ticking checkboxes off of a “mysterious” quest.

 

 

Why The Hell Can’t I Stop Playing Fire Emblem Heroes?

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I play it in bed. I play it on the toilet. I play it in front of my computer. I play it between classes. I play it DURING classes. I cannot stop playing Fire Emblem Heroes. In fact, with the exception of a bit of Overwatch, as well as me starting the first couple hours of Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines (a game I will probably talk about more once I’m deeper into it), Fire Emblem Heroes is literally the only video game I’ve played in the last, god, month?

What Fire Emblem Heroes is is a mobile game, Nintendo’s third after Miitomo and Super Mario Run, and it is sort of a Fire Emblem-lite. You control squads of four units on very small (6 x 8, in fact) maps, with the simple goal of eliminating the entire enemy force, which only comprises between three and six units. Units have special abilities, and gain advantage and disadvantage over opponents thanks to a simple rock-paper-scissors style triangle (swords beat axes beat spears beat swords).

Probably the main draw of the game is the way one obtains heroes, as the title suggests. Usually, Fire Emblem games provide a drip feed of new characters through the story, occasionally letting you unlock some through clever gameplay. Heroes, meanwhile, offers up a gachapon-style unlock mechanism by which you spend orbs, the game’s main currency, in exchange for “opening up” new heroes. You get a batch of five colored orbs, indicated the contained hero’s place on the weapon triangle, and can spend money to open them up, with each consecutive orb in the batch being a little bit cheaper. Since this is a free mobile game, of course you can buy the orbs with real money (I haven’t).

The most obvious reason that I might be playing this game a lot is time-based. I’m super busy right now, with two senior projects needing completion, plenty of homework in my other classes, a job hunt, a part-time weekend job, and two tabletop groups to juggle. Playing a full-fledged AAA game right now is kind of a hard sell right now, when I could be using that time to do, well, productive things.

Fire Emblem Heroes is so short and bite-sized that it means it’s perfect to slot into this schedule. The most demanding fights only take five minutes or so, and while the stamina system which determines how much you can do in a day seems like it’s aggravating some, for me it serves as the perfect end-cap for how much I want to play in a session before returning to whatever I was doing.

I’m also usually a huge sucker for games where you collect stuff (Pokemon, specifically), but I don’t think Fire Emblem Heroes necessarily has its hooks in me for that reason. I’m not hugely attached to the Fire Emblem series (the only game I’ve played is Awakening, although I’d quite like to play the others in the future), so seeing all of these familiar faces from the whole series really doesn’t do a whole lot for me. Instead, I think the character progression is what’s holding me close.

You see, characters in Heroes level up as they fight and kill enemies, and doing so unlocks Skill Points. These points are then spent on a hero-by-hero basis to unlock new basic and special attacks, as well as to unlock certain special feats and traits. One hero might gain the ability to drag an attacked enemy back a space, back towards the rest of your forces, while another might attack twice, so long as they initiate the combat. Unlocking these abilities I think forms the strategic depth of the game needed to hook me.

Fire Emblem Heroes obeys the first law of making instantly interesting gameplay: easy to learn, hard to master. The initial mechanics are easy: guys can move two spaces than attack. Faster guy attacks first. Weapon triangle grants buffs. Simple enough. However, as you progress through the game and your characters accrue more and more Skill Points, your strategic options grow in kind, as suddenly you’re paying very close attention to character positioning, to the types of enemy on the field, to whether you should initiate a combat or let an enemy come to you. Sure, none of these puzzles are equal to, say, a game of Starcraft, but they’re just mentally engaging enough to be a satisfying five minute distraction.

Furthermore, the sheer quantity of heroes you get, as well as the difference in abilities between them, means that you can always mix up and try new strategies. You can lumber forward and fight enemies with brute strength with a bunch of knights, which are very strong but can only move one space a turn, or you can hope to decimate a foe’s melee units with a barrage of arrows and spells before they even get close.

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The arrows strategy also gets much better if you get lucky like I did and pull a five-star version of the best archer in the game early into your playtime.

The beauty is that all of this is condensed into a game that just takes a couple of minutes to complete, instead of hours. Each match feels like a tiny little puzzle, one where you have to work the numbers out in your head. There’s no RNG in the fights at all, just pure strategy, so the game strikes this beautiful balance of having just enough tacked on to each character to create a vast array of possible strategic situations, combined with a wide range of characters to choose from, all condensed into an extremely short play time. Sure, a full length Fire Emblem game would be boring if it were this simple, with no equipment system, support system, or even classes, but you’re not playing a full Fire Emblem game, you’re playing a five minute one.

Ultimately, I feel like Fire Emblem Heroes works because it fills a nice niche as far as games are concerned. The game isn’t brain dead, you do need to engage with it on a mental level in order to plan around assorted character abilities, positions, and tactics, but it doesn’t require near the same tactical investment as a round of Heroes of the Storm or Overwatch, and that strategy is condensed into such a tiny little span of time that it doesn’t feel like an investment of time or energy at all, just a quick little diversion to distract from the day.

Rip And Tear: How To Make Very Smart Stupid Things

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At the risk of parroting basically every major games publication this year, DOOM is a very, very good video game. I only just recently started playing it since I got it for Christmas, despite the game having come out last May, and I’m honestly blown away by how good it is. Every second of the game feels good to play, and the genuine feeling of ramping difficulty combined with the fantastic feedback loop of the combat just keeps me craving more.

DOOM ties in to a recent trend I’ve seen across media lately, and that’s a trend I’ll hastily call “Very Well Done Stupid Things”. This genre comprises games that seek little more than visceral, action-focused thrills, but do so with a level of craftsmanship befitting of more “high brow” pieces. This is a category I’d fill with movies like Mad Max: Fury RoadDredd, and Kingsmen: The Secret Service, and DOOM‘s game contemporaries in the genre might be BayonettaMetal Gear Rising: Revengeance, and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon.

To clarify, this does not mean that these pieces of media cannot contain commentary on greater topics (Kingsmen is a deconstruction of the spy genre, and Fury Road certainly has something to say about feminism), but these topics require some deep reading to find, and the initial impression has less to do with those topics and way more to do with “Oh my god, this is ridiculous”.

I think the first essential key to such an experience is knowing what you’re making. One of the things that distinguishes a movie like Mad Max: Fury Road from, say, a Michael Bay Transformers joint is that George Miller fundamentally understood that what he was making was a movie about cool dudes in leather driving cool junker cars across the desert and shooting each other. A precious minimum of minutes of Fury Road are spent doing things that aren’t driving or shooting, basically the exact minimum needed to push the plot forward. While Michael Bay might say that he knows he’s making “exploding robot car movies for teenage boys”, the amount of time in each Transformers movie spent detailing the (boring) human characters, or reciting (forgettable) lore proves that this sentiment has been lost somewhere in the filmmaking process.

The next essential key is, in fact, an essential key to most storytelling media in general, from games to movies to books: every element of the piece needs to be expertly designed to drive the central focus. DOOM is a strong example of this. DOOM‘s central thesis is thus: move and shoot, or die. Thus, every single mechanic and room in the game is designed to be conducive towards moving and shooting. Traditional cover systems or “Wait long enough while not being shot to recover your health” systems are forsaken in favor of a system by which you weaken enemies (by shooting them) then melee execute them (by moving to them) to get a bounty of health pickups, meaning the best way to survive a fight is to remain in the middle of it for as long as possible.

glorykill
The glory kills are also a great source of going “AH GOD JESUS”

When you’re developing a game for pure, visceral joy, you need to make sure that everything in your game ties directly into that. Otherwise, the parts that do not, like DOOM‘s codex entries or Metal Gear Rising‘s walk-and-talk sections, will stick out like a sore thumb against the rest of the game. This certainly isn’t to say that you can’t include dialogue or lore in your game, but do so in a way that acknowledges that players might certainly not care at all, and want to return immediately to the bloodshed.

Finally, I think the last necessary component to make a “good dumb” game or film is an understanding of tone. You have already recognized that you’re making a silly thing, so any attempts at evoking real emotion should be done with the fact that they are going to be framed by ridiculous ultraviolence in mind. Mad Max‘s poignant moments have some good buffer space of quieter scenes leading up to them, ensuring the transition isn’t jarring.

This isn’t to say your game needs to be all jokey and comedy.  Get too jokey, and you drive full steam into Duke Nukem territory, with every moment tainted by jokes that feel like they were just there to make the writers laugh (not to mention the simple fact that a lot of dialogue tends to repeat in video games, leading to groan-inducing repetition). Again, take DOOM as a strong positive example. There are no jokes in DOOM, no one quips, there’s no pithy one-liners or references. Yet, the game is funny by the pure nature of how serious it is, how absolutely self-important it presents itself, while still knowing deep down how ferociously stupid it is at a conceptual level.

“Low brow” does not mean bad. Quite a few of my favorite films, shows, and games in recent memory have been in the pursuit of cheap thrills and dumb violence. However, shallow narrative meaning is no excuse for bad craftsmanship, and just like any other genre, what separates true legends in this genre from the dollar a dozen crap is a real attention to detail.