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.

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.

 

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.

 

Technoir’s Engine of Intrigue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more about the Fair Food Program on their website.