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Genre Crossing

After writing about how conflicted I am about CrossCode, I have decided to abandon the game. Multiple times. And I’m still playing it.

This isn’t a thing that I do! I’m a busy adult with a huge backlog of games (somehow I still have not gotten to Marvel’s Spider-Man, to name just one example sitting on my shelf). When a game loses me, it loses me and I am on to the next.

And CrossCode does so many things that would be instant deal-breakers in most other games. But it turns out I am willing to put up with a lot to spend time with the game’s characters and unravel the mysteries of its story.

So, what are those things I’m putting up with? Fundamentally, I think CrossCode suffers from being three different games crammed into one. If you happen to like all three of them, you’ll have a great time; but disliking any of them can go a long way to ruining the experience for you. CrossCode is:

  1. A character-driven mystery story presented in SNES-like pixel art, a la To the Moon.
  2. A systems-heavy action RPG with deep skill trees and fiddly gear choices, a la Torchlight or Grim Dawn or whatever.
  3. A precision- and reflex-testing 3D puzzle platformer with complex timing and spatial reasoning puzzles a la Portal or The Talos Principle or something.

I already mentioned that some of these elements don’t blend well - in particular, the SNES-style pseudo-oblique camera often makes the 3D spatial puzzles harder than they should be. But the real problem is that these games block each other off and the story is the only part you can skip through.

This is most obvious in the temple dungeons, where you must defeat a puzzle gauntlet and a boss fight in order to be reunited with your party members and continue the story. But it comes up everywhere - sometimes you’ll find that a plot-relevant sidequest leads you to a jumping puzzle followed by a tough battle. Or you’ll do a sidequest that has you solving a sliding-block puzzle, your reward for which is a scene developing some side characters. No matter which of the three games you’re here for, you’re getting all of them, unavoidably and unpredictably.

Don’t care about the story? You can skip dialog and plot scenes. Don’t care for the combat or puzzles? Tough. Like Horace, Catherine, Wandersong, and countless other games, CrossCode might lure you in to its world and characters and then block you off from it with skill tests you find uninteresting or impossible.

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Economic Vocal Minorities

On top of all the ethical problems with whale-hunting via loot boxes, there’s also a game design one: it’s allowing the design of games to be twisted by the habits of a small fraction of players.

From Ofcom: Less than 6% of UK children, 4% of adults have purchased loot boxes:

“[O]nly 4% of UK adults who play video games say they have ever bought loot boxes in free-to-play titles, and only 4% have bought them in premium games. Meanwhile, 6% of game-playing children – defined as aged five to 15 – have spent money on loot boxes in free-to-play games, while 3% say they have bought them in premium titles.”

In most cases, it’d be laughable to change a game’s design to significantly worsen it for 94%-97% of its players to accommodate the habits of the other 3%-6%. But when those habits are “spend more money than the 94%-97% put together”, that’s what happens.

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Crossing My Mind

I don’t think I’ve ever been as conflicted about a game as I am about CrossCode.

The aesthetic is right out of the golden age of mid-90’s SNES RPGs, highly reminiscent of titles like Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. The music and sound effects are well-suited and the world is lush with little details (my favorite being the high-level players that run by ignoring you, or sit and have private conversations in hard-to-reach areas - this is exactly what happens in real MMOs) adding up to a cozy and satisfying atmosphere and a world that’s a joy to inhabit.

The characterization and storytelling are also deeply compelling. Again, there’s such an impressive level of detail here - I adore Emilie’s stories about wildlife that the enemies remind her of and her joyful reaction to laser bridges, for example. And the amount of characterization that comes across with Lea’s aggressively limited vocabulary is amazing.

But then so much about the game’s mechanical design feels horrible to me. Why in the world would you put so much emphasis on jumping puzzles in a 3D space that’s viewed as 2D pixel art, obscuring where surfaces are relative to each other (is that platform taller or just further north)? Why make them so long and complex that they sometimes require backtracking through multiple screens to get where you need to go when it’s so easy to misjudge a jump, fall off, and need to start all over?

Why is so much of this game a puzzle platformer where you need to think several steps ahead and apply precision positioning and aiming with split-second timing - when your aiming device is an analog stick and the 2D pixel art can (again) obscure the required angles? Why create situations where the player is virtually guaranteed to spend frustrating time trying to implement the puzzle solution after they’ve already done the interesting part of figuring out what they have to do?

Why is there so much to keep track of? Why lock the best equipment behind an unwieldy loot-trading system with intermediate levels of otherwise-worthless trade goods that make it harder to see what your actual options are, adding obscurity without adding depth? Why put chests the player can’t open yet in hard-to-reach places, punishing their exploration instead of rewarding it? Why have areas that are so complex and hard to navigate and require so much backtracking for those treasures or returning to spread-out quest givers and then give the player a terrible map that represents each zone as a featureless rectangle?

I spend a lot of time in CrossCode wishing I were done with the current bit (my god the first dungeon drags on and on) and just exploring the multi-level maze of the game’s second town made me want to rage-quit. And yet I can’t stop playing and when I’m not playing I can’t stop thinking about playing. I love being in this world that tickles my nostalgia both for RPGs and MMOs, I love spending time with these characters, and I want to find out what happens to them. I just hope the game doesn’t become completely intolerable along the way.

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This is the difficulty select screen for...

This is the difficulty select screen for SteamWorld Heist on PS4. Higher difficulties increase punishment (mission failure penalty) and challenge/strictness (enemy numbers, damage, and health) which is par for the course. However, they also provide an experience bonus.

I find this sort of thing super frustrating and a clear indication that the game doesn’t understand what difficulty settings are for. They’re for letting players opt in to an experience appropriate to their capabilities and interest. By having higher difficulties be more punishing but award more experience, SteamWorld Heist conflates this with a risk/reward trade-off that really should be handled separately. It’s now less clear what difficulty level to pick - a player wishing to reduce the amount of time and effort required by combat may now have to grind through more encounters, while a highly skilled player may find the higher difficulties actually easier.

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Animal Crossing Isn’t For Everybody

Here’s the thing that really frustrates me about Animal Crossing: New Horizons and the reason I’m writing all these posts about how it effectively trolls certain types of players. The way the game is marketed and the way it gets talked about, it’s easy to think that if you don’t enjoy playing Animal Crossing the way it clearly wants to be played, you are playing the game wrong, when in fact it’s completely possible that the game’s highly-deliberate and opinionated design just doesn’t work for you. It looks like a game anybody ought to be able to pick up and enjoy, but it’s actually designed for a very specific type of play experience and thus a very specific type of player.

This is especially insidious given the game’s positioning as chill and casual. If you’re an anxious person and you try to unwind with Animal Crossing but find it impossible to relax with, you might conclude that you are bad at relaxing which will just make everything worse.

So please, keep this in mind: If you find Animal Crossing’s resistance to optimization, untrackable objectives with frequent interruptions, and artificial delays frustrating, it’s not your fault. You haven’t failed the game - the game has failed you.

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