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Framing device plot tumors

So there’s a pattern in fiction that I haven’t seen discussed or found a name for. It is, in short, when a framing device becomes a plot tumor.

There’s a specific kind of framing device I have in mind - more than the simple in medias res of, say, a tale told in flashback, this is when the frame story has an unusual premise which exists to enable and string together certain kinds of inner stories. For example, the Assassin’s Creed games (at least the first several - I fell off the franchise after Ezio and maybe this has changed since then) are technically near-future sci-fi where technology enables people to relive their ancestors' memories and secret societies use this to hunt down powerful artifacts from a precursor civilization. This allows each individual game to focus mainly on adventures taking place centuries in the past, connected by the common thread of the present-day hidden power struggle over the artifacts.

I think there’s a conflict with this sort of setup that is really hard to escape. There’s a very real sense in which the frame story only exists for the benefit of the inner stories - yet the stakes of the frame story are almost always going to be higher and more unusual than those of the inner stories. For the storyteller (and for some portion of the audience) this can cause the frame story to be more intriguing, which can easily create a trend where early installments have just enough frame story to carry the inner story and later installments spend more and more time and focus on the frame story.

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Harmonix in Fortnite and Purple Arcade

Two things happened yesterday that messed me up a bit more than they should…

First - Epic Games bought Harmonix “to develop musical journeys and gameplay for Fortnite".

There was a time when I would have named Harmonix as my favorite game studio. It’s been over a decade since I felt that way and I’ve been baffled by some of their decisions in the interim, but I still can only think of them as one of the purest examples of an indie developer with a clear vision and passion. There’s the old chestnut about how some studios make games to make money, while others make money to make games - Harmonix has always felt like the latter. They have a consistent history of developing innovative games and franchises that find new ways to empower players to create music - they’re the ones who invented the plastic instrument rhythm genre, before Activision came along and ran it into the ground. They don’t belong in the same universe as something as nakedly commercial as Fortnite.

So as inevitable and unsurprising as developments like this may be, there’s still something deeply disturbing about seeing Harmonix get swallowed by Fortnite. It’s like watching Cthulhu eat Big Bird.

Second - Welcome to Purple Arcade!

So, there’s this YouTube channel that used to be called “Game Design Wit”. From 2014 to 2016, this guy put out a couple dozen video essays about game design. They were great! I consume so much game commentary and analysis that it’s rare for me to find someone who consistently shows me new insights, but this guy did. I linked to his channel on my blogroll, suggesting starting with the video Why PS1 and N64 Games Were Different. (Guess I’m gonna have to update that listing.)

After 2016, he stopped with the video essays. I don’t know exactly why, but I assume it’s the same reason most small YouTube channels stop doing that kind of thing: too much work for not enough reward. He later put out some lower-effort videos - a handful of book reviews, a rambling discussion of why people like Dark Souls, and some Let’s Plays - things that didn’t require script-writing or video-editing. I didn’t like any of these, but I’m certainly in no position to throw stones when it comes to an internet person dramatically lowering the effort level of their game analysis output. I missed the essays but I couldn’t begrudge the decision not to invest in them.

Yesterday, a new video was put out on his channel, which had been renamed “Purple Arcade”. The video advertises the eponymous company’s services of developing advergames. At first I thought his account might have been hacked, but it’s clearly him in the video, so then I thought maybe it was a joke, but it seems to be 100% serious.

And, like, I can’t be mad about the guy trying to make a living in the area of his expertise and passion. I’m a little frustrated he turned his existing YouTube channel (with over 10k subscribers) into one for his new company - I get why people do that kind of thing but it still feels rude to me. He could have left the old channel as-is and still posted the video and linked to a new channel. Somewhat alarmingly, he also apparently removed or de-listed all the Let’s Play videos, though thankfully the video essays are still available (and collected in this playlist, though it also includes the low-effort Dark Souls ramble at the end which I suggest skipping). I’m assuming this is because he currently considers them beneficial to his brand, as they show he’s a game design expert - but if he ever decides they are insufficiently polished and are a detriment, presumably they’ll vanish too.

The impact of this one small YouTube channel is obviously much less than the impact of Harmonix and Fortnite, but this change feels much more personal in scope and hits much closer to home. It makes me think of what I recently wrote about cottage industries and the dying middle ground between hobby and profession. I never co-opted Pixel Poppers for, like, an adjacent career, but if the relevant dynamics had hit me with different timing - if I weren’t already somewhat successful in a completely unrelated career when Pixel Poppers was no longer viable as a hobby - maybe I would have.

This might not be a rational reaction, but both of these events just give me a vague sadness for the inevitable swallowing of art by commercialism. I feel like I’m watching beautiful sandcastles get washed away by the tide, unable to fully ignore the gnawing feeling in the back of my mind that the tide is just going to keep coming further and further in.

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Nintendo Switch Online + Experiment Pack?

So I feel like by far the most interesting thing about the recent Nintendo Switch Online announcements has gone completely unremarked.

As a quick refresher - Nintendo Switch Online (NSO) is the paid subscription service for Nintendo Switch, roughly analogous to PlayStation Plus or Xbox Live Gold. Some of what NSO provides is standard for this space - the ability to play multiplayer games online, cloud-based backups of save files (well, mostly), occasional game trials and discounts and other little bonuses. The unusual thing is that it also grants access to a library of NES and SNES games.

Recently it was revealed that a higher subscription tier dubbed the Expansion Pack is coming. By paying extra on top of the normal NSO cost, you can additionally get access to a library of N64 and Sega Genesis games.

Now, there’s a lot to be said about the merits of these offerings and whether they are worth the cost and how they compare to previous-generation’s Virtual Console offerings and the approaches taken by Microsoft and Sony (not to mention how things work on PC) and so on and so on. I’m not here to talk about any of that.

What’s much more interesting to me is that the NSO Expansion Pack will apparently also include access to the upcoming paid DLC expansion for Animal Crossing: New Horizons. That’s fascinating.

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Friction and hooks

A bit over ten years ago, I started playing Dragon Age: Origins. It was a very highly-regarded game by the people who’d made Mass Effect, which I had absolutely loved, so I expected to enjoy it.

And I more or less did, for a while. I got through my chosen opening area and the first few hours of the main story, picking up a few party members along the way. The story and world were fascinating, but I wasn’t enjoying the combat - it was too slow and strategic for my tastes, especially as my party grew in size. Before long I stalled out, dropped the game, and never came back to it.

This bothered me. I was supposed to like this game! I’d gotten so into Mass Effect that I’d played it three times in a row and read the tie-in novels, and here I was giving up on the universally-acclaimed Dragon Age: Origins partway into my first playthrough! Was I not a man of culture?

I resolved the cognitive dissonance through a bit of denial. Clearly the reason I’d been able to get into Mass Effect and not Dragon Age was that I’d been unemployed when I played Mass Effect and not so when I played Dragon Age. It wasn’t a question of taste - it was a question of time and energy. So instead of moving Dragon Age to my “Meh” category on Steam, I made a new category for it: “Free Time”, for games I should come back to when I had more free time so I could enjoy them properly. (I no longer have this category so I can’t tell you all of the games that made their way into it over the years, but I’m pretty sure they included Before the Echo, A Valley Without Wind, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution.)

Of course, the “free time” I was waiting for never materialized, even in later periods of unemployment, and no game ever got picked back up from that category. Looking back, I think I now have a better idea of what was happening (and has continued to happen with an increasing number of games over time). It was related to free time, but indirectly.

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This morning while walking the dog, I stopped her...

This morning while walking the dog, I stopped her from exploring into a neighbor’s yard and said, “That’s someone else’s house. We can’t go that way.”

I realized my dog is a video game protagonist and I’m the narrator throwing up invisible walls and forcing her to turn around when she hits the edge of the accessible map.

Gonna think about that next time I play a game and feel the designer tighten the leash.

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Gotta solve 'em all

The first Picross game I played was Pokémon Picross over five years ago. I’m curious how many people followed this pattern: when the My Nintendo loyalty program launched, its most intriguing reward was an exclusive game, My Nintendo Picross: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. I was only dimly aware of Picross and wasn’t sure I wanted to plunk down 1000 Platinum Points to pick this game up, but Pokémon Picross had come out fairly recently and was free-to-play, so I used it as a Picross demo. I quickly learned that I liked Picross, abandoned Pokémon Picross, and started in on the many non-F2P Picross offerings on 3DS: the Twilight Princess one, Mario’s Picross on the virtual console, the PICROSS e series, Pic-a-Pix Color, and Picross 3D Round 2.

Between those and some other Picross games on mobile and Switch, I’ve now solved somewhere in the vicinity of two thousand Picross puzzles. And I can confidently state that the 3DS is straight-up the best place for Picross. The combination of buttons, touchscreen, and stylus in a light handheld are perfectly suited to the gameplay. Using just a mobile touchscreen or just buttons on Switch is so clunky by comparison. A lot of Picross games on the Switch don’t even support touchscreen controls, which is baffling to me.

When I got a Switch and basically stopped using my 3DS, I also basically stopped playing Picross games because they just weren’t as enjoyable anymore. This is one of the biggest reasons I’m sad about the loss of the DS/3DS/Wii U paradigm.

But I’ve been picking my 3DS back up recently and have been tucking back into Picross there. I still have three more PICROSS e games to get through (apparently there’s a final Japan-only one? and the 3DS is region-locked, so I can’t just sign in to the Japan eshop to pick it up? how expensive can it be to localize a friggin' Picross game when you’ve already localized all the UI for it? sigh) plus Sanrio Characters Picross, but that’s about it - there were a couple other Japan-only games and nobody’s putting out new Picross on the 3DS anymore.

So I figured I might as well take a second look at Pokémon Picross too. And it definitely lands a bit differently with me now. When I was using it to learn Picross, I considered its time targets aggressive - five minutes for a 10x10 grid stressed me out. Now I solve those puzzles in about one minute. I also wrote that “the Pokémon are mostly just a way to cheapen the core puzzle gameplay” since their abilities were either just assist features or shortcuts to solve part of the puzzle for you and “[i]f you don’t want to solve the puzzle yourself, why play Picross?” Now, after solving thousands of puzzles, I find those features add some interesting variety and flavor to the game, where before they were a crutch that robbed me of much-needed practice.

But the fact that I now actually enjoy the game only makes it that much more frustrating that, a couple days in, I’ve run into the monetization wall. The game quickly got a lot less fun to play and I have no desire to monetarily reward a design that so clearly sacrifices the quality of the experience to persuade me to open my wallet.

Unlike most F2P titles, there at least is a cap in how much you can spend, after which the “fun pain” goes away. But my understanding is that while the game is about twice the size of a PICROSS e title (about 300 puzzles as opposed to 150) that spending cap is five times the cost of a PICROSS e game ($30 in the most efficient method and of course the IAP structure is confusing, compared to $6 for a PICROSS e title). The non-spending alternative makes use of a daily reward (which I dislike) that has to be earned every day for about a year to unlock everything, and that’s if you are careful to optimize rewards in ways that make the game less fun to play.

So, ultimately, my review of Pokémon Picross stands. It’s best used as a demo to see if you like Picross before moving on to better-priced and more-respectful options.

But being honest with myself, I think there’s a real possibility that once I exhaust the other options on 3DS, I will sigh, roll my eyes, and plunk down the $30 to be able to enjoy Pokémon Picross. Because it’s still going to be better than Picross on Switch.

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