Posts by Tag / Thought (291)

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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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Ratchet & Clunky Adaptations

After seeing me play Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, Allie was intrigued by the story and characters and suggested we could finally watch the Ratchet & Clank movie.

We didn’t like it.

As a quick reminder - in 2016, there was a Ratchet & Clank movie which rebooted the franchise’s story, changing at least as much as it kept from the plot of the original game. Alongside this was a game called simply Ratchet & Clank, which was sort of a remake of the original 2002 game, but also a direct adaptation of the film, which was itself loosely based on that original game.

I’d previously understood, thanks mainly to Super Bunnyhop’s analysis, that the 2016 game was technically solid but had its story and characters substantially worsened by needing to conform to story beats from the film, which itself was a mediocre and generic kids' movie. After seeing the film, I think this was a generous assessment or that I’d overestimated the quality I could expect from a mediocre kids' movie. The film’s storytelling and characterization is also quite weak (weaker than most of the games; Allie’d been intrigued by Rift Apart and was bored by the movie) and there are multiple out-of-place-feeling scenes that seem to only exist because of the tie-in game.

While I’d previously been frustrated by the negative impact the movie had on the game, I’d assumed this was due to Sony and others prioritizing the movie and so at least the movie had probably basically achieved its goal. This doesn’t seem to have been the case. The movie lost several million dollars, which resulted in the Sly Cooper movie getting shelved. So this was a purely destructive trade-off. The story reboot doesn’t even seem to have stuck; while Rift Apart doesn’t directly contradict anything from the 2016 film/game, it also doesn’t acknowledge any of its events or characters but does directly follow up events and plot threads of other previous games.

What a waste that movie was.

In looking into this, I found out there’s also an upcoming TV series. Based on the pilot, it’s not quite in line with the canon, tone, or characterization of the games but is at least better constructed than the film and more like what I had pictured as mediocre kid’s media. I don’t think it’ll do as poorly as the film, but I don’t think Allie or I will want to watch it.

(Also it’s weird to me how many references to the games are in both the film and the TV pilot. I feel like the people who catch them are also the people who would be upset at how much those adaptations change the canon and the characters.)

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Ratchet & Clank: Binge Apart

I did a slightly weird thing this last weekend. I played Ratchet & Clank.

I mean, that’s not the weird part. I’ve been a fan of R&C since the first game in 2002 and have played every game in the series (including re-releases) usually to 100% completion and usually multiple times (the multiplayer-focused All 4 One and Full Frontal Assault presented challenges in that area as none of my friends then were as into R&C as I was).

To get to the weird part, you have to know that I don’t have a PS5 and that the recent Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is so far the only PS5 exclusive that I care about. I want to play it, but I don’t want to pay several hundred dollars to play it (while supporting the casual erosion of privacy along the way). But one of Allie’s friends turns out to be as big of an R&C fan as I am, and he has a PS5 and the game. He offered to loan me both for a weekend so that I could play it.

I had several reactions to this. First, I was excited that I could get a chance to play the game without buying a PS5. Second, I was grateful that the friend was willing to be so generous. Third, I recognized that this couldn’t possibly be the best way to experience the game and I would probably enjoy it more if I just waited for an opportunity to play the game under less time pressure. And fourth, I found myself wondering if I could do it. In sort of the same way you might decide to try spending 24 hours in a Target - you know it’s going to be a bit rough, and it’s not like it’s a notable achievement or anything, but you kind of want to know what it’s like and whether you’re up to the challenge. So I thanked him, accepted his offer, and set out to complete Ratchet & Clank and get the platinum trophy within a weekend.

He showed up with the PS5 on Friday evening and I started Rift Apart at 7:00 PM. I proceeded to binge-play it in a way I haven’t done with any game since I was single, unemployed, depressed, and hooked on WoW. I played for a few hours, went to bed, woke up early Saturday morning, and went right back to playing. Apart from dog-walking, some quick bio breaks, and a brief trip to the carpet store with Allie, all I did on Saturday was play Rift Apart.

It was a bit disorienting. It started fun, but every time I reached a point where normally I’d want to put the game down and do something else, I forced myself to continue. By Saturday night, I was convinced the whole thing had been a mistake. I was clearly still at least an hour or two away from being done, but I was tired of the game and could no longer enjoy it. I had burned my entire Saturday for a rushed, sub-par experience of a game I’d rather savor. Probably the biggest issue is that while I usually get steps while I game, for some reason trying to do that here made me dizzy. So, I got very little exercise all day which left me feeling a bit lousy. I decided I didn’t want to throw good days after bad and I’d probably just give up on the game and have a normal Sunday at least.

But after sleeping, when I got up Sunday morning I decided to give it another shot. And the game was fun again! The same content that I’d found frustrating the previous night was now a blast. By 11:30 AM, I’d completed the game and most optional objectives and earned the platinum trophy. (I had gotten all the collectibles, including those for which there is no trophy, but did not complete a challenge mode playthrough because of the time constraints. Normally I don’t consider a R&C game completed until I’ve finished challenge mode, but under the circumstances compromises had to be made.) And then I had a half-normal Sunday and got some exercise before returning the PS5 that evening.

Overall, I’m glad I did this and grateful to Allie’s friend for the loan. I rose to the challenge and it was an interesting experience. I already knew that my mood, energy level, and burnout could strongly affect whether I enjoyed a game, but this was a really stark example of it - I was ready to write the game off Saturday night, but both before and after that I enjoyed the game a lot. (Definitely increases my empathy for game reviewers who have to rush through titles to get release-day reviews up.) And frankly - the fact that I enjoyed the game as much as I did (it’s easily the best R&C since 2009’s A Crack in Time) when I played it this way means the game is really good! Just imagine how much I’d have enjoyed it if I could have really savored it.

I had honestly been ready to write off R&C as an effectively dead franchise - I’m both relieved that Insomniac is making good R&C games again and annoyed that this probably means I will eventually get a PS5. Because when the next R&C game comes out, I’d like to have a bit longer of a span to enjoy it.

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Two news pieces today on games adding restrictions in response to government action.

First, Linden Lab is banning gacha mechanics in Second Life. I’m slightly embarrassed that my first reaction to this news was “There’s gacha in Second Life?” I’ve known for ages that people could make and sell content and services in that game, but I frankly haven’t thought about Second Life since before the lootbox controversies and so it simply never occurred to me that users would be using gacha mechanics there. Once mentioned, though, it’s totally obvious that it would happen.

But what’s interesting to me about this is that the announcement specifically says this move is because of “a changing regulatory climate”. I’m not aware of recent changes to regulations around gacha, so I’d love to know more about what prompted this action and what the discussions around the “difficult decision” were like.

It’s worth noting that we have gacha in real life and have for a long time. There are the physical capsule/gashapon machines from which the mechanic get its name, and also things like blind-boxes and CCGs. Why aren’t these seen as just as problematic and exploitative? Why isn’t there a “changing regulatory climate” around these?

I think that it’s mostly because the physicality of the product creates a secondary market. If you like buying a surprise, you can buy through gacha; if instead there’s a specific item you want (either because you only like some of the items in the set or because you’re looking to complete a collection) you can buy from someone who already found that specific one. And if you buy a bunch through gacha and decide you don’t want to keep everything, you can recoup your expenses by reselling your duplicates or undesirables to someone who does want those specific ones. Heck, you could plausibly buy a bunch of gacha, decide you don’t want any of them, and sell them all for a profit.

This flexibility makes the entire system less exploitative. Resalability both makes gacha-purchases more valuable and prevents anyone from being “forced” into gacha and potentially-bottomless spending to get the specific thing they want.

I would argue that what makes gacha a problem in video games (game design considerations aside) is lack of resalability. This is what makes it a money hole that takes more money from consumers while providing less value in return - other cheaper options are removed for users trying to get specific things and users have no way to get any portion of their money back after spending.

I have never played Second Life, but my understanding is that the in-game currency can be easily exchanged with real-world currency via an external market and that user-created goods are resalable - indeed, Linden Lab’s announcement refers to the ability to re-sell items that had been purchased through gacha and indicates this remains intact. So that means that gacha within Second Life does, in fact, have a secondary market and thus avoids the pitfalls and exploitations of non-resalable in-game gacha.

I previously wrote that “it’s very hard to write a law that prevents evil loot boxes while not preventing similar things that aren’t evil." If Second Life has to remove gacha mechanics because of regulations written to stop abuses by companies like EA, I think that counts as an example of this kind of failure mode.


The second news item that struck me today is that Chinese conglomerate Tencent will be curbing time and money spent in games by minors after Chinese state media called online games “spirital opium”.

Maybe you think that specific plan is a good thing and maybe you don’t, but what’s interesting to me about this is that I’ve been watching Tencent somewhat nervously as they gobble up ownership stakes in a number of international game companies, many of which have huge audiences. It’s hard to tell yet what the effects of this will be, but I can’t help but read it as a bit of a harbinger. It seems likely that Chinese state views on gaming and the Chinese “regulatory environment” are going to have an effect on a lot of popular games developed outside China and played worldwide, for better or worse.

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