The Best Thirty Bucks You Can Spend This Steam Sale

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It’s Steam Sale time, boys, girls, and people who don’t want to be gendered according to the traditional binary! While Steam sales have definitely lost a bit of their luster, thanks to a modified format removing the thrill of grabbing a short-time deal at the last minute, as well as just time all but guaranteeing everyone who cares has already snapped up most of the usually-recommended indie darlings, but I wanted to compile a list of great games you can snap up on the cheap. If you’re new to PC gaming, these will be some games that will start your collection off with a bang, and if you’ve been at it for a while, hopefully you’ll find a gem or two in here that’s slipped your attention before.

Fallout: New Vegas – $3.29

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New Vegas for this cheap should be illegal. In my opinion this game is the undisputed champion of the Bethesda-style open-world formula, which is unusual since it was actually developed by Obsidian using Bethesda’s tech. As probably the most popular game on this list, you can probably find thinkpieces, reviews, and retrospectives galore on the internet about this game, but if you wanna hear it in my words, Fallout: New Vegas is one of the greatest RPGs ever. The interplay (heh) between the factions leads for a truly open-feeling main quest where you the player get to make important, sweeping choices about the course of the game. Fantastic writing, great characters, excellent quest design, and fantastically open-ended gameplay makes this a game you could easily spend years playing.

Left 4 Dead 2 – $1.99

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The odds of you being a PC gamer and not owning a copy of Left 4 Dead 2 at this point are, uh, low, but on the off chance you’ve never played my favorite multiplayer game of all time, lemme give you the sales pitch. It’s a cooperative multiplayer game in which a team of survivors need to run through expertly-crafted levels avoiding hordes of zombies. The gunplay is tight, and the levels are semi-randomized, controlled by an AI “Director” who modifies the difficulty on the fly to ensure players are constantly the perfect degree of challenged, ensuring that every playthrough is unique, while still rewarding repeated play and game mastery. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and a great way to kill an afternoon with your friends. Highly advise picking this up.

LISA: The Painful – $4.99

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Don’t let its humble sprite graphics and obvious “Made in RPG Maker”-iness fool you, LISA: The Painful is a powerhouse of a game. Featuring a unique combat system in which every party member controls in a unique and interesting way, as well as a desolate and bizarre world sort of unlike anything else in games, where LISA really shines is its writing. If you have a bleak, and I mean bleak, sense of humor, I implore you to jump into LISA, a game that’s able to flip between horribly depressing and so-funny-you’re-crying on a dime, with jokes so exquisitely timed you’ll almost feel bad for laughing after some of the stuff you experience in this game. The RNG can be a bit too punishing at times, but this game’s still an exemplary way to spend ten hours, and proof not to judge a game by its engine.

Subsurface Circular – $4.79

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It’s hard to refute that you’re not really getting a lot of game for your buck with Subsurface Circular, a game that I easily cleared in about an hour. However, what you are getting with Subsurface is excellent, with a dialogue-driven mystery game in which you, a robot detective, have to interact with other robots aboard a subway in order to solve a mysterious disappearance. The game uses its short run-time to explore the ideas of how robots would behave and really think within the confines of society, and the fundamental ways that interacting with a robot might differ from the way you interact with a living, breathing person. If you wanna play a game and, at worst, go “Huh, neat!”, Subsurface is a great buy at five bucks.

Just Cause 2 – $2.99

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In the most complementary sense of the phrase, Just Cause 2 is a dumbass game. Depicting a one-man army’s attempt to liberate a fictional Southeast Asian island nation from dictatorial rule, Just Cause 2 is best described as a “fuck-around simulator”. Drive fast cars, fly cool jets, and blow shit up on this comically large island paradise, and generally just have a ball messing around. Until a Crackdown game comes to PC, Just Cause is my ideal choice of game for just hopping into a world, running around, and being an idiot.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines – $4.99

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Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is probably the hardest sell on this list due to its age: the graphics, particularly the UI, have not aged well at all, and the controls and level design are plenty cumbersome by modern standards. However, if you think you can look past it, you’ll find an RPG for the ages, with amazing characters, extremely good open-ended game design allowing you to be as suave or as brutal a vampire as you want, and the sort of fantasy that only a few other games have attempted, with, er, mixed results. If you wanna live out the fantasy of being a lord of the night, Bloodlines is a gem.

Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator – $7.49

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OK, so, I might need to sell you on why you should play a gay dating simulator in which you, a single dad, meet and fall in love with a smattering of other single (mostly) dads. The dating simulator genre is full of pathetic excuses to conceal some softcore pornography, but Dream Daddy, somewhat surprisingly, is fairly wholesome? The characters are excellently written, with each feeling like a real person with a history, their own quirks, and their own stuff to work through. The humor is positively charming, the romance tastefully done, and no matter who you are, there’s a dad in this lot for you (I personally love Mat, the coffee shop-owning hipster of the bunch). If you just want a charming game to put a smile on your face, this is one for you.

Total Price: $30.53

Ah fuck it I was close.

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The Games That Defined 2017 For Me

I want to note for a second that this post isn’t called “The Best Games Of This Year”, because, honestly, I don’t feel comfortable saying that simply due to how many good games, games I’ll probably love, I didn’t get around to.

2017 was a busy year for me. The world was…well, a lot of stuff happened in current events this year that you don’t need me to describe to you, but in the midst of all of that, I graduated college with Latin honors, got a job as a programmer, visited Japan for the first time, got my own place, had my Dad move out of Dallas, leaving me alone here, and a ton of other stuff. The fact that I have time to play any video games is honestly incredible.

But play games I did, and holy shit was this a good year for games. Japan came back with a vengeance after misguided rumors that the Japanese development scene was dying. Many of the year’s best games came from Japanese teams (including NieR: Automata, Yakuza 0, and Persona 5, all of which are still in their shrink on my shelf, shamefully). In between releasing Skyrim for toasters, Bethesda published some fantastic single-player experiences, proving that it pays off to invest in your pet projects. The Switch only came out this year, and it’s already such an amazing piece of hardware. Tabletop RPGs are full steam ahead, following the path to public fame blazed by the Fifth Edition of D&D and shows like Critical Role. Board games have never been better.

So, instead of just arbitrarily listing all of my favorite games that came out this year, despite the fact that I played a ton that did not come out this year, all to culminate to a grand reveal to my favorite game of 2017 (Prey, spoiler alert), I thought it would be more interesting to talk about the games that are inexorably linked to my life and my memories of 2017.

The Game That Almost Fucked Up My College Career: Nuclear Throne

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Let’s get something straight here: Nuclear Throne did nothing wrong, I almost fucked up my college career, with the vehicle of self-destruction being Nuclear Throne. I first installed Nuclear Throne at the top of the year, after meeting game development icon and saint of a human being Rami Ismail, and after blubbering like an idiot for what felt like four hundred years, going “I should play more Vlambeer games”. I fell into a real hole playing Luftrausers, and thought Nuclear Throne would be a good game to play.

I played, like, a lot of Nuclear Throne. So much that I was sitting in the back of a couple of classes in my last semester just…playing Nuclear Throne. Linear Algebra? Who needs Linear Algebra? The only vectors I need are the ones from my gun’s muzzle to this crow man’s face!

Yeah, turns out, while you can have a philosophical argument all day about whether or not you need Linear Algebra (spoiler alert: if you’re a programmer, you do!), when you’re in a Linear Algebra class you 100% need Linear Algebra. So, I had to spend the week before finals with my head buried in textbooks learning all of the material for the first time, instead of casually recalling all of the stuff I learned in class, because I spent all of class playing Nuclear Throne. In this way, I don’t know if any game will evoke my college years of late-night cramming, sitting in lecture halls, and panicking about grades, quite like Nuclear Throne.

The Game That I Wouldn’t Shut Up To My Friends About: Deadly Premonition

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Is Deadly Premonition good? That depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re measuring by the metrics of realistic textures, non-repetitive music, good driving controls, a meaningful open world, or PC performance, no. In fact, by those metrics, Deadly Premonition is pretty much a trash fire. Luckily, I don’t rate games by any of those metrics.

Instead, I rank games by the amount that I get pulled into their world, by the affection I have for the characters and the disappointment and longing I feel when I have to put the controller down. And by that metric, Deadly Premonition is a masterpiece. I ended up loving FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan (please, call him York), as much of a movie-referencing, tone-deaf weirdo as he is, as I ended up loving all of the weird characters of Greenvale. The mystery and world of the game enthralled me, and even when the game was at its worst, I wasn’t mad because the game was mad, I was mad because I was too addicted to stop.

I have convinced four of my friends to purchase Deadly Premonition. It has its hurdles to jump over to really enjoy, but when you get past all of that, the game is an absolute treat. Everything in the game is a monument to how SWERY65 and his team worked hard to make a game, a crazy game that only they could have conceived. While the translation from idea to product is never perfect, and that’s maybe never been more true than for Deadly Premonition, this game is the kind of paradoxical mix of unsettling and charming that it really does perfectly capture small town America.

You should play Deadly Premonition.

The First Game I Played As An “Adult”: Prey

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Younger readers might not know this, but after you graduate from college you get inducted to the secret cabal of adults, where you gain access to all of the Secret Adult Knowledge like how to fix plumbing and what a Roth IRA is. Once I had finished reading the ancient scrolls and the scientists activated the gene that makes you refer to movies as “shows”, I walked outside as an adult. I wasn’t a student, for the first time in 16 years. I had a job, and two degrees.

So, the first thing I did was go straight to my local game shop, buy a copy of Prey, plop down on my Dad’s couch, and play it until 3 in the morning. Turns out, being an adult is a lot like being a teenager, and so I slipped right back into my teenage habits of getting, just, real deep into a video game. And no game was so perfect for that role like Prey.

Prey is a goddamn masterpiece, a perfect 10 in my opinion. The way that game makes its world breathe and feel alive, and the way the characters on board Talos 1 feel like real people, right up until they get murdered and eaten by alien goop monsters, was what let me slip so deep into that game. Combine that with a perfect execution of immersive-sim style gameplay, encouraging exploration and creative thinking, and just like how the Typhon consume the bodies of their prey, Prey consumed me and my thoughts for weeks.

When I was a kid, I was afraid that there would be a point where I would have to take a step back, out of all of these amazing virtual worlds I was exploring so that I could focus on the real world and grown-up problems like mowing lawns and whatever the fuck a cleanse is. Prey reminded me that, no, no amount of years will make me stop immersing myself in these incredible games.

The “Holy Shit I’m Actually In Japan” Game: Gunslinger Stratos

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You hear a lot in nerd apocrypha about Japanese arcades, and how they’re full of hardcore dudes just chain smoking and being really good at fighting games. I wanted to go to Japan for a lot of reasons, but some nonzero percent of that desire came from the desire to experience a Japanese arcade, to see the sort of alternate reality on the other side of the world where people, like, leave their house and go to a place to play video games, something which for us Americans is mostly a dead dream of the 80s.

When I got to my first arcade in Akihabara, a Taito Game Station, I walked through a couple of floors of grabber claw games, some fighting games, and beelined to find a category of game I could only vaguely postulate existed, the sorts of games that were made for the arcade, in a country where arcades were not just a type of bar you can go to that might have a Ms. Pac Man cabinet, but were a part of nerd culture. Towards that end, I found Gunslinger Stratos, a third-person shooter that used custom lightguns that I whipped together like a chubby, gaijin Bayonetta.

I had been culture shocked from the moment I landed at Narita Airport, doubly so the first time I walked out of Shinjuku Station. There was a certain amount of being lost in those first couple of days, as I wandered around a combination of enchanted, curious, and clueless. I had to frantically Google about a dozen terms just to order my first dinner in the country. I got constantly lost, was massively intimidated by the crowds and the subway system, and had this little feeling in the back of my head that I was in way over my head.

It’s weird, but on my third day in Japan, walking into that Taito Game Station in Akihabara, all of that went away. Despite most of the signage being in Japanese, and having never heard of half of the games in that arcade, I was able to just walk right up to Gunslinger Stratos and play with the guys next to me, despite the fact that we couldn’t speak a word to each other. I got my ass kicked, sure, but something about the way I was able to just play a video game with some strangers comforted me, and from that moment on, despite being on the other side of the world, I was without fear or intimidation, and knew I could get around however I had to.

The Game That Kept Old Friends TogetherStar Wars Tabletop Roleplaying Game

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My college friend group is somewhat odd. We all actually went to high school, and while subsets of the group were friends back then, we never hung out as a collective whole until college, where we all subconsciously decided that meeting new people is scary and opted to instead coalesce into a group of people who weren’t strangers, but weren’t friends either.

We became friends quickly, though, good friends. Over the course of college, I ended up living with about half of the group in assorted configurations, and even while doing the thing everyone tells you not to do (common knowledge seems to say that friends who move in together will have knives to each others’ throats by the end of the week), we only got closer as friends. Or maybe I was the shitty roommate and no one was impolite enough to tell me. Also possible. Probable, even.

At some point in college, we all went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens together, and it was using this movie as a catalyst that I attempted to roll the dice on turning the friend group into a tabletop group as well, and it worked. For almost everyone in the group, Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG was their first roleplaying experience, and the campaign we clumsily started that January persisted all the way through 2017, moving towards a grand finale in 2018.

Over recent years, tabletop games, roleplaying games in particular, have started to hold a special place in my heart that video games could just never encroach upon. The fact that I have an excuse to bring all of my friends together in physical space to all play a game together is something that, especially as we all branch out into our adult lives, is fuckin’ hard. Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPG for me is not just a game with brightly-colored dice, it’s the thing that kept my friends together through all of 2017.

The Game That I Reminisced Over: Puyo Puyo Tetris

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When I was in high school, my friends and I were pretty ravenous for any game we could play at school instead of doing, y’know, anything productive. Plenty of mediocre flash games came and went, but one standby constantly stood as a time-tested game that was always fun: Tetris.

Flash forward five years, and I had a good high school friend in town, back home from his new job in Idaho. Our friend group sort of exploded across the country over the course of college, and as the only one who remained in Dallas, I’ve been lucky. Whenever people come back home, by extension, they also come to see me. When he came back, we trawled our local game store for some good split-screen multiplayer games, and I landed on Puyo Puyo Tetris. We went home, poured ourself some glasses of whatever liquor I had lying around, each grabbed a Joycon, and went into Battle mode. This was probably around 7 PM.

The next time I looked at the clock, it was 2 in the morning. Something about the sort of mechanical process of just playing Tetris made it perfect for assuming a sort of zen state, where we just sat and played, occasionally remarking about where our friends were now, reminiscing about dumb stuff we did as kids, or just yelling obscenities at each other. Playing video games with my friends is something I’ve done for a decade at this point, but something about it being Tetris made it so familiar. It was like repeating a ritual we hadn’t gone through in a long time, even though this was technically a new game.

The Last Game I Played In 2017: Dream Daddy

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(Technically the last game I played in 2017 was The Jackbox Party Pack 3 at a New Year’s Eve party but I have fewer interesting things to say about that)

To be honest, I’m not 100% sure why I bought Dream Daddy. I’ve never played a visual novel or a dating sim, am not really a fan of the Game Grumps (although I was in the past), and am a cisgendered straight white guy, the sociological equivalent of a Chili’s. So, buying a gay dating sim produced by the Game Grumps is atypical for me. Part of it might have been that I was playing Demon’s Souls at the time, and reached a point where I was like “Fuck this, I wanna play something easy and wholesome”. Thus, Dream Daddy was purchased.

Dream Daddy is a sublime video game for a variety of reasons. The humor is spot on, with a very 2017 blend of self-deprecation, absurdism, and puns that never comes off as “fellow kids” territory. The minigames are all in all fairly clever, my favorite being an encounter with a fellow Dad that launches a Pokemon-esqe battle to see who can brag about their children the best. But the place Dream Daddy absolutely shines is the characters.

The best character in the whole game is easily your daughter, Amanda. Despite you the player not really having much presence in Amanda’s upbringing (the game starts near the end of Amanda’s high school career). Despite this, you end up feeling a sort of weird paternal connection to the character, as Amanda shares your sense of humor, your social awkwardness, and your habits good and bad (including eating a bunch of junk food and watching terrible reality television). Moreover, Amanda accomplishes what is apparently impossible in writing: she is a teenage character who behaves in a believable way, neither being “just a tiny adult” nor “a child allergic to logical decision making”. She reacts to the world of the game in a way that believably conveys the flaws of her character as well as just what it’s actually like to be a high schooler about to go to college.

Dream Daddy also has a full cast of dateable Dads who live on your block. These Dads generally initially conform to a one-word trope (there’s a hipster, a teacher, an outdoorsman, a fitness junkie, a goth, a “bad boy”, and a youth minister). At first, they seem to play these tropes fairly standard: goth dad Damien has gargoyles in front of his manor and wears a cape, leather jacket-wearing bad boy Robert downs straight shots of whiskey at a dive bar down the street, and gym nut Craig says “bro” a lot and coaches his daughters’ softball team.

As you play the game, however, these characters open up into interesting characters with pasts that affect them, goals they drive towards, and interesting personality quirks. Robert, the tough guy, is a major cinephile. Hugo, the intellectual teacher, loves pro wrestling. Damien, the goth dad, is afraid of scary movies. These are played for more than just gags, they help flesh out the characters as real people.

Moreover, the rewards for pursuing a Dad to the end aren’t always just “you bone”. Instead, these paths always end in what feels like a healthy, logical conclusion for the friendship, which sometimes means you don’t end up in a relationship. It doesn’t feel like you “didn’t win”, but rather like you actually advanced an interpersonal relationship in a real way. It’s neat.

In a way, I think it’s appropriate that I capped off 2017 with Dream Daddy, because I think the thing that was most important to me about 2017 was my interactions with other people. From meeting one of my idols at the top of the year to graduating alongside my friends to reconnecting with old friends to seeing my Dad move away to pursue a better career to the random people I befriended in Japanese bars, people were the source of all the good things in my 2017. Hopefully, this is a trend that will continue into 2018 for me.

 

10 Good Ideas: Bloodborne and Trick Weapons

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Well, it’s late late late September, which makes it a perfect time to wrap up my September blog series: 10 Good Ideas. What better game to conclude my list of great game mechanics than my favorite game of the Souls lot, Bloodborne? It works out doubly well, considering my lateness means that I’ll be talking about this Lovecraftian game of extradimensional horrors in this, the spookiest of months. Everything works out in the end!

The full admission with Souls games is that Bloodborne is, in fact, the only one I’ve beaten. I’ve gotten fairly close in a few others, but never beaten, whereas I’ve beaten every single boss of Bloodborne. I think the fast-paced combat of the game is a strong motivator for me (although I certainly still like the combat of the mainline Souls games), and a big part of that is the game’s exclusive usage of what it dubs “trick weapons”.

Trick weapons are, simply put, weapons with tricks. Less cheekily, trick weapons have alternate modes or abilities which can be triggered at a single button press, sort of like alt-fire modes in some shooters. Some switch between two different forms completely, like the Kirkhammer (which is a sword that you can sheathe into a tombstone to turn it into a massive hammer), whereas others gain temporary buffs upon activation of their trick, like the Tonitrus (which is a mace that becomes covered in electricity). For the most part, they’re like two weapons in one.

So, why am I calling these weapons out? Alt-fire isn’t exactly new. Well, the thing about weapons in Bloodborne is that, unlike other Souls games, Bloodborne lets you hold on to weapons through the entire game. Literally. The same Hunter’s Axe I got at the beginning of the game was the one that I used to kill the final boss.

On its face, this seems like a knock against Bloodborne. You just used one weapon? How boring! Could you imagine going through all of Half-Life with just one weapon, or all of Skyrim with the same crap sword? Well, no, because those weapons aren’t terribly dynamic. In most games, a gun just shoots, and a sword just swings, but in Bloodborne, weapons are dynamic. There are light and heavy attacks, you can hold and charge some attacks, and then you can activate a trick to transform your weapon, and gain a whole new suite of options. A single trick weapon has with it a fairly large set of choices to make when using them. Do I want the speed and flexibility of my shortened Hunter’s Axe, or the power and range of the lengthened mode?

Since every weapon in Bloodborne offers a fairly wide suite of options, this means the game can afford to have fewer. Again, this at first sounds negative, but I’m someone who hates when games force you to make ill-informed, numerically-driven, or otherwise boring choices, and that’s kind of what Dark Souls does with its weapons. Look at this wiki page for every straight sword in Dark Souls.

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What the hell is the difference between these three swords? I get that there are minor, minor stat differences (the physical damage varies by as much as four, the Strength requirements vary slightly, and the weight differs by one), but ultimately, these three swords are all, well, swords. You swing ’em, they’re sharp, and they basically, from a player feel standpoint, do the exact same thing. Or, at least, you certainly don’t see how they wouldn’t just looking at them (there are greater subtleties. The broadsword doesn’t thrust on a strong attack, for example).

This is stupid. I don’t wanna stare at an inventory screen to try and figure out which of these three essentially identical weapons I like the most. I’m down for inventory and weapon management, but not on such a minute level of granularity. Now, let’s look at some Bloodborne weapons, and in the interest of maximal fairness, let’s pick three swords.

Ludwig’s Holy Blade is a sword with a massive, bladed sheathe, allowing you to alternate between a normal sword and a fuck-off sized two-hander. The Blade of Mercy, meanwhile, splits in two, allowing you to switch between one- and two-sword styles. The Reiterpallasch, meanwhile, is a rapier that turns into a gun. Despite all being “swords”, relatively little observation lets you notice massive gameplay differences in these weapons, and each covers a very large subset of gameplay situations.

Trick weapons are clever because, by allowing one weapon to handle a variety of tasks, you ultimately minimize the amount of weapons needed for a game to feel like it has a “complete” arsenal. This minimizes the number of inventory management decisions the player has to make, while also ensuring that combat with the same weapon remains dynamic and interesting through the whole game.

Obviously, there’s a trade-off. A smaller amount of weapons means that the drip feed of loot won’t be as constant as in a more traditional RPG, but that really just depends on expectations more than anything else. Sure, Skyrim would be pretty boring if you only unlocked, like, four swords throughout its entire campaign, but most people seem pretty happy with Zelda games (Breath of the Wild notwithstanding) having only a couple of main weapons through the course of the entire game.

Ultimately, I think anything that trims down the amount of unfun choices made within a game is a good design choice, and trick weapons certainly do that, so for that, I consider them a Good Idea.

You Open Your Mouth But The Words Just Won’t Come Out: Dialogue Systems In Games

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//Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Mass Effect spoilers follow

So, I’m in the process of finishing up Deus Ex: Human Revolution after bouncing off of it the first time, and I’m really enjoying myself. I’m a big fan of immersive sims, and the game offers a great deal of variety in how you deal with the assorted obstacles it puts forward. I especially like how varied your options are even within the duality of “loud” or “sneaky”: you can be a silent assassin, hack a bunch of turrets to do your job for you, quietly knock out the guards in your path, very loudly knock out the guards in your path, or sneak on through without touching a fly. On top of that, sometimes sneaking isn’t required, and you can simply talk your way out of situations.

This leads me to Human Revolution‘s dialogue system, which I really enjoy. It’s usually a pretty standard dialogue system affair, but there are key NPCs that you need to talk to, always in order to get something out of them, that launch the game’s “real” dialogue system. In these scenes, on top of the dialogue and your responses, the player is given a readout of the NPCs mood, their personality traits, and a dossier of their personality quirks (all justified by the player character, Adam Jensen, having augmentations in his skull that boost his social abilities).

With this information, it’s up to the player to use that information to try and bend the conversation in their favor. What I love about this is that the game doesn’t have some sort of arbitrary “conversation” skill, like Mass Effect or Fallout. In those games, you have a somewhat arbitrary measurement of your ability to talk to people, and if that number is high enough, it unlocks the “just get everything you want” dialogue option. Human Revolution has no such measurement, and instead, if you want the best option, you need to actually reason your way around your conversational opponent.

Actually, that’s not 100% correct. There is an augmentation you can spec into which can grant you a “just get everything you want” dialogue option, but when you trigger it, you actually need to select between three such options, each tailored to a certain personality type (either aggressive Alphas, defensive Betas, or timid Omegas). To unlock that “best” option, you still need to pay attention to your conversation partner.

I adore this system, because it actually makes you feel like some sort of shrewd negotiator. Instead of just mashing the “win the conversation” button, you sit there and think a little. “Well, I know this guy is trying to save face in this public setting, so if I really push him into a corner that makes him sound guilty, he’ll be forced to buckle”. It’s not exactly rocket science (for instance, when the personality hint tells you that you should directly confront a character when they try to weasel out of a tricky subject, one option is usually just labeled “CONFRONT”), but it’s certainly more interesting than a normal dialogue tree.

What if the game went a step further? Human Revolution just hands you a subject’s personality traits on a silver platter, but what if it didn’t? After all this is a game in which violation of privacy is a central theme, in a genre in which violation of privacy is a central theme, so what if instead of just being given a person’s personality traits for free, you had to research them, pick around their public and private histories to build that personality profile. By analyzing their emails, their phone logs, their public speeches and debates, their reputation with their friends, allies, and enemies, you built up a profile of your target as a conversational opponent, and then used that to bend them to your will? After all, that’s what people who actually debate for a living do.

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What did we do to deserve stock art?

I can actually pretty easily imagine a whole game centered on this. Imagine playing a detective or police officer, or maybe even an attorney. Games of this sort usually center on the collection of evidence or testimony, but imagine one in which that was only part of it? On top of that, imagine that your “targets”, perhaps witnesses or even suspects, have particular personality traits. Usually, games have such characters crack conversationally when presented with facts or with proof of their inconsistent testimony, but maybe on top of that you also needed to know how that person debates.

If you have a witness who’s had an incomplete account of events, and you have proof that they’ve been lying, your course of action can still change depending on how that witness reacts to being under pressure. Perhaps they’re notoriously slippery, and you have to really hammer them with facts to get through. Perhaps they’re pretty averse to pressure, and you have to gently present the facts to avoid a complete shutdown on their part. It adds another dimension to a normal dialogue system, and gives players more to mentally juggle.

The thing about dialogue systems as they tend to exist right now is that they’re tactically uninteresting. By considering a character’s personality traits, it adds a layer of strategic depth which the system as it is largely codified in modern gaming simply lacks. It also does something which many modern dialogue systems don’t, which is that it rewards gameplay rather than skipping it. Many games use dialogue systems as a way to let players who lean that way simply skip entire sections of the game. Famously, Mass Effect lets you just talk the final boss into shooting himself in the face, which is a neat concept, but in the end just means players don’t experience a part of your game that might have been interesting. In fact, despite having played the game four times, I’ve literally never done the first phase of the Saren boss fight due to this.

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I have absolutely no idea what happens if you don’t convince Saren to kill himself. Maybe you have a dance battle.

That’s kinda silly, don’t you think? If I’m playing the game, I want to, y’know, play the game. If we opt into a system where improving conversational odds against an opponent requires research, now we have a dialogue system which rewards gameplay. Maybe we do get to skip a boss fight or a dungeon with our conversational skills, but to do so, we introduce a whole bunch of new gameplay of rooting around computers and audio diaries looking for clues, of pressing associates of the target to learn more about them, and other sorts of detective work that wouldn’t be necessary if you decide to just, y’know, blast the dude in the face. A dialogue system like this feels like a different path, just like a ventilation duct or secret passageway, and less like a skip or a cheat.

A dialogue system with greater complexity that just “are you smart or dumb” or “are you good and evil” opens up some fantastic new design space to think about the way your characters interact with each other. Dialogue systems right now are a hotbed for design creativity (see Oxenfree or Dropsy), so I think there’s a lot of interesting work that can be done here, looking at the groundwork laid by Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

10 Good Ideas: Mass Effect 2 and Interrupts

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Image from Kyle Foster’s Youtube Channel

Let’s be real: if you played Mass Effect 3 through to the end, you took the Renegade interrupt and stabbed Kai Leng. If you didn’t, you should have. Kai Leng is my most hated character in the entirety of Mass Effect (disclaimer: have not played Andromeda yet), and getting the chance to shatter his stupid goddamn DeviantArt-ass katana and stab him in the gut like the bitch he is felt so good SCREW YOU KAI LENG YOU KILLED CHARACTERS THAT WERE SO MUCH BETTER WRITTEN THAN YOU.

Ahem. Excuse me.

Interrupts, a mechanism introduced to the Mass Effect series in the second installment, are pretty simple: while a character is talking, you occasionally get the opportunity to, well, interrupt them, usually with a line of dialogue but occasionally with something kickass like stabbing somebody’s fanfiction in the chest.

Interruption as a concept is technically a concept that’s existed in game writing presumably for as long as games have had writing (I don’t know that there’s an easy way to see the first time a game character interrupted another, but I’d be interested to know!), but it typically they’re pre-written into the dialogue. For games with heavy dialogue or subtitles, this usually results in a line of dialogue being displayed with a dash or ellipses at the end, basically screaming “something is going to interrupt this”. Hopefully the dialogue is timed right such that the interrupting sentence begins while the first speaker is still talking, or else the whole thing sounds terribly stilted. There’s even a whole TVTropes page about it.

Mass Effect 2 attempted to alleviate this problem by mechanizing the concept of interrupts. When you see the button prompt during a conversation, you can mash it it have Shepard interrupt the current speaker. Sure, the execution isn’t always perfect, and the timing can occasionally feel wonky, but it’s certainly better than having a subtitle just awkwardly cut off halfway through, or having someone politely stop mid-word so that someone else can interrupt.

Here’s the thing: human beings interrupt each other, a lot. The concept of interruption is actually an extremely meaningful tool when it comes to analyzing human interaction. Interruption is indicative of certain personality types (specifically assertive or controlling people), as well as moods (discomfort, excitement, or anger). An interruption is a sign that the topic being discussed is one of importance to the interrupter. It’s also a sign of comfort with one another. I know, much to my friends’ irritation, I pretty consistently attempt to complete my friends’ sentences. In the same way, it can be used to mark the power dynamic in a conversation, as one person gets less and less of a chance to get a word in edge-wise.

We’re in a design space right now where people are interested in building complex dialogue systems. The Walking Dead has a timer on dialogue, forcing players to formulate a response in a given amount of time. Deus Ex: Human Revolution lets players spec into augmentations giving them complete personality readouts of conversation partners. LA Noire pioneered hyper-realistic facial mo-cap so that people could actually read the faces of their conversation partners. And yet, relatively few games, at least to my knowledge, have tried to harness the power of interruption to add depth to dialogue.

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Deus Ex: Human Revolution gave you entire psychological readouts of key conversational characters

Of course, some have, most notably in 2016’s Oxenfree, which allowed players to choose dialogue options at any time, allowing for interruptions, polite conversation, or silence. Giving players more granular control over the timing of the conversation like this is excellent, and can be used to create more interesting relationships between characters. But, to my knowledge, the mainstream introduction of mechanized interruption occurred in Mass Effect 2, and because it allows for more natural and human dialogue, it’s most definitely a Good Idea.

 

 

10 Good Ideas: Gears of War 3 and the Retro Lancer

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Gears of War as a series effectively canonized the modern cover shooter. Chest-high walls, the “roadie run”, the cover button, all of these things, while not necessarily originating with Epic’s 2006 title, were all packaged very neatly by it and presented as the starting point for an entire subgenre of the shooter game, with its influence extending far beyond its own titles.

The thing about cover shooters, however, is that they by their very nature they encourage a sort of very methodical sort of gameplay. There’s a reason the genre is also known as “stop ‘n’ pop”: you move to a piece of cover and sit there, popping out to shoot enemies whenever they, themselves, pop out of cover, before advancing towards the next piece of cover. Rinse and repeat. Compared to more aggressive shooters like Call of Duty or Halo, and especially compared to the modern wave of movement-focused shooters like TitanfallGears of War feels kinda slow. There’s a fair amount of waiting involved, between waiting for enemies to reveal themselves from behind cover, to waiting for the right time to advance between pieces of cover.

Now, Gears of War itself has actually acknowledged that through its design. A fair number of enemy types, namely Wretches and Tickers, actively charge players in cover, forcing them to take immediate action. Gears also balances its weapons, generally, such that those weapons which take you out of cover are the most powerful, with shotguns usually providing instant kills and the Lancer’s chainsaw bayonet always providing instant kills upon landing.

The thing here is that these mechanisms end up sort of in opposition to the game’s movement systems. Gears characters are big, hunky marines with the physique of linebackers. They don’t move with much quickness, except for the roadie run, which is a single mad rush in a straight line forward with very little steering ability. Beyond these tools, all the player has is a sort of clumsy roll that can take one a very short distance quickly, with some animation delay between the end of the roll and the next player input. Essentially, what this means is that trying to move into position to use any sort of short-ranged weapon leaves the player vulnerable. You’re defenseless for a short time after using the roll, have no control over your direction while roadie running, and are kind of just a sitting duck while walking. Long story short, you can either move or shoot.

Enter Gears of War 3, the final* episode in the main series, and the introduction of the Retro Lancer. The gimmick behind the Retro Lancer is pretty simple: instead of the series’s iconic chainsaw bayonet, it has…a regular bayonet. With that, the command which normally revs the chainsaw bayonet up instead launches the player forward in a weaponized version of the roadie run, bayonet forward. If you hit any sort of enemy, you skewer them, instantly killing human-sized enemies.

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The thing about the Retro is that it provides an aggressive movement option where the game never had one before. Previously, your options were to either move or attack, whereas charging with the Retro was both. This doesn’t sound terribly significant at first, but what it does is incentivize player aggressiveness in a series and genre normally all about slowly progressing forward. Instead of dividing gameplay into attacking or moving, the Retro Lancer lets the players mount an attack and, as a result, change positioning.

Let’s back up a smidge. Once you’re actually in a piece of cover in Gears, the decisions that you have to make aren’t actually terribly interesting, in my opinion. You wait for a guy to stand up, then you stand up and shoot him. The only thing that changes about the game state is that there’s one less guy shooting at you. You can choose to move forward, but that’s pretty universally a bad idea unless there are, let’s say, two or fewer enemies left, or you’re on a pretty low difficulty.

The Retro changes that dynamic by offering a new decision. Let’s say you’re in a piece of cover and you realize that you’re in a bad spot. In a traditional Gears dynamic, you’re offered two options: try and clear the room from your disadvantageous spot, or cut and run, leaving yourself exposed to enemy fire. The Retro offers a third option: an aggressive push outwards, a marriage of the two decisions. And here’s the best part: to maximize the Retro’s usefulness, you need to charge towards enemies, encouraging you to violate the “my cover-your cover” dynamic the game normally has while also not making such a decision very dumb. Charge towards an enemy flank, stand up, rev the Lancer, and you’re probably dead. Charge towards an enemy flank, immediately skewer someone, then push towards cover, and your odds are slightly better.

Providing incentive on breaking from the player norms of playing a cover shooter is what the Retro Lancer encourages (and in fact, a focus of a lot of Gears of War‘s design decisions), and that is a Good Idea.

A Gaijin’s Perspective on Gaming in Japan: Tabletop Gaming

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I was slightly familiar with the Japanese tabletop gaming scene upon heading over there. I knew that one existed, because I was aware of some of the games that had made their way over to the States. A few Japanese tabletop RPGs have been translated to English, most notably Ryuutama, the above pictured Golden Sky Stories, and Tenra Bansho Zero. Japanese board games have found a bigger foothold in America, with games like Love LetterMachi Koro, and Kobayakawa.

A question I had about this hobby in Japan was one of space. I stayed in four apartments over the course of my time in Japan, and none had suitable space to host a group of 4 to 6 (an average amount of people for a tabletop gaming group) for a long gaming session. On top of that, having a table big enough to host a Dungeons and Dragons game, let alone a larger board game like Dead of Winter or, god forbid, a Warhammer game seemed unlikely.

The response to this problem, it seems, is threefold. The first factor in the survival of tabletop gaming in the cramped space of Japan is that the scene has evolved to make games easily played in a small amount of space. I spent a decent amount of time perusing Japanese tabletop hobby shops, most notably a chain called Yellow Submarine, and judging by what those stores kept in stock, it seems like trading card games are definitely the number one tabletop game genre.

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From what I could tell, Cardfight!! Vanguard definitely seems to be the “in” game in Japan right now, although card shops always seemed to have large sections of Yu-Gi-Oh!, the Pokemon Trading Card Game, and even Magic. On top of that, bargain bins had collections of tons of games past their prime that I didn’t even recognize, indicating a fairly long history of games at least attempting to take the spotlight for the local card game scene (after all, Cardfight!! is only about six years old).

The prevalence of TCGs makes sense. They require relatively little space to play, and also tap into what seemed to be the innate otaku drive to collect stuff. TCGs are, by their nature, super collectible and, if they take off, super profitable. TCG decks are pretty easy to transport, and if Friday Night Magic is any indication back home, pretty easy to cultivate a scene around.

Japanese board games are still a thing, but the games that seem to be popular, or at least, the design trends that seem popular, are for minimalism. Most of the shops I went into sold big box games like Dead of Winter or Arkham Horror, but looking at what was stocked the most, and most interestingly, what games were made in Japan, the games that were most prevalent were very small games, many of which were in boxes no bigger that a TCG deck box. I ended up picking up a few of these, partially because they packed really easy, and partially because the minimalist design seemed to also translate to their components, rules, and art style.

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Pictured from left to right: Maskmen, Insider, Night Clan, and my US copy of Coup

 

With minimal design as the first factor, the second factor contributing to the Japanese tabletop game scene is the prevalence of public game spaces, where people could go to play assorted games. Yellow Submarine, as well as most of the hobby shops I went in to, dedicated as much as half of their floorplan to tables for people to play games on. This isn’t terribly uncommon back in the States, but the premium put on square footage in Japan makes this more significant. Clearly, providing this space must be important for a shopkeeper to devote that much space to it.

This is probably similar in social construction to the arcades I talked about in my last post. There’s no real room to host a bunch of people in your apartment, nor will social norms allow you to get really rowdy at home around a game, so a public space like this lets you meet up with your friends and really let loose playing a game. This ties back to the first point: if you’re playing your tabletop games at a shop, not at home, games that you can easily throw into a bag and take with you on the train are probably going to win out over big box games.

The third factor in the Japanese tabletop game scene is that, whenever Japan does take on a game or a genre that orginates from the West, they do so on their own terms to better suit their needs. Take tabletop RPGs for example. When I saw my first shelf of Japanese TRPGs, I was surprised by two things. The first was that Japan appears to call them “Tabletalk RPGs”, which I have to wonder is just a mishearing that accidentally propagated through the subculture, and the second was how small the books were.

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Pictured from top to bottom are Insane, the Dark Souls TRPG, a book I absolutely do not know, Dungeon World, the D&D 5 PH, and the Pathfinder Core Rulebook

I know “the books are small” is basically just a rehashing of the first point, but small RPG books are just sort of not a thing in the US. We can make small board games (see Coup), but western RPG rulebooks are, as a rule, generally enormous. The classic D&D triumvirate of books are three, fairly large, hardcover books, and even “small” games like Dungeon World or Fate are still noticeably larger than the Japanese standard book size. They do tabletop RPGs, a most-decidedly Western invention, but they toss out the standards that don’t suit their needs, like the devotion to ridiculous books.

I think it’s worth nothing that this “we took it, but we changed it to fit us” mentality actually goes for a lot of things in Japan. With very few exceptions, I noticed few things from “home” that made its way to Japan did so unchanged. This rang especially true in Amerikamura, a neighborhood of Osaka that’s sort of like if you shoved hip-hop streetwear, post-Cold War Cuba, and modern Manhattan together? Japanese culture takes what it wants and ruthlessly modifies it to its own ends, rather than paying reverence to any sense of “authenticity”.

Some things that just can’t be easy “Japan-ified” just seem like they straight up do not do well in Japan. I actually, by accident, found a Games Workshop store in Japan, but frankly, there were not a lot of people in it, and I wasn’t able to find a lot of GW merch in other hobby shops around Tokyo and Osaka. That makes sense: Warhammer and other miniature wargames require a lot of space, not only to play, but to store armies and paints, and space required to assemble and paint your units. Combine this with the fact that I don’t think any tabletop wargames really capture Japan’s aesthetic tastes (except maybe Infinity, which I expected to see more of, honestly), and it’s understandable that tabletop wargames aren’t terribly popular in the land of the Rising Sun.

So, yeah, make games small, play them in shops, and take big games and make them smaller. Those are the three tenants that seem to drive the Japanese tabletop game scene. It’s working, too: despite going in at weird hours, there were always a good number of people in the hobby shops alongside me, and there were always games going at the tables. I’m happy, too: seeing the industry adapt and thrive in this very different social and economic space forces creativity, and designers hoping to see this hobby from a different angle can easily do so just by looking elsewhere.