Thoughts

Quick, short, often niche posts about games. Sometimes they are brief looks at concepts in art, design, culture, and psychology. Other times they are reactions to specific news items or just something silly that came to mind.

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Bubsy.Trip Runner?

I’ve been tuning out Bubsy-related news for a while now, because why would you pay any attention to Bubsy, so I completely missed that the new Bubsy game coming out literally today is somehow a Bit.Trip Runner clone made by the actual makers of Bit.Trip Runner. WHAT.

Well, they’ve got my attention. I’ll be checking out the reviews.

I happen to be knee-deep in the Runner games right now for an article I’m working on, so the timing was actually a bit unnerving.

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Musou’s “Shazam” Characters

So I mentioned that before Fire Emblem Warriors, Musou characters tended to be homogeneous in capability and differentiated mainly by various trade-offs. One interesting trade-off is demonstrated by what I like to call the Shazam character - one who is normally weak, but has a transformation that makes them very powerful.

Musou games commonly have three levels of attacks. First are the combos triggered by hitting the weak and strong attack buttons in various patterns. Next are the special attacks - you gradually earn charges for these as you deal and receive damage but can only store a few. They vary between characters but are usually short-range high-damage area attacks. Finally, there’s Rage mode (that’s its name in mainline Dynasty Warriors; it gets called other things in other games). A meter fills as you perform critical hits or successful combos or similar, and when it’s full you can enter Rage, which causes the meter to drain but makes you significantly more powerful until it runs out (and it’s usually capped off with a special attack). So, you might use normal combos on fodder enemies, special attacks on officers, and Rage mode on heroes.

Young Link in Hyrule Warriors and Tiki in Fire Emblem Warriors have comparatively weak combos, but have especially powerful Rage modes - Young Link puts on the Fierce Deity Mask and Tiki transforms into a dragon. So the primary way to maximize these characters’ effectiveness is to spend as much time in Rage mode as possible - and to help with that, these characters (and only these characters, I believe) have the ability to spend special attack charges to refill the Rage meter.

They’re still fairly awkward to use in the early-to-mid-game, but if you invest in them and get the right upgrades and weapon skills, by the late game they can basically spend entire missions in Rage mode, making them extremely powerful.

This is hardly the first game to make characters with this sort of dynamic, but it occurred to me that this is very much the sort of thing you can only do in non-competitive games. If these games had versus modes, you’d basically have to ban Young Link and Tiki or they would dominate high-level play. But in single-player or even cooperative games, it’s actually okay to have this kind of imbalance. It creates interesting experiences, giving players a chance to invest in characters that then “break” the game - which in that context can be satisfying and fun.

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Permanence, Patches, and Physical Media

The excellent Saints Row: The Third just came to Switch. Unfortunately, it’s reportedly plagued by performance issues and glitches - and the day one patch has been delayed.

I hate to see a game I love have a troubled launch, but the delayed patch also calls attention to the general practice of day one patches, which is common enough now that it wouldn’t have even registered to me if it weren’t delayed. It’s normal to pop in a new game - even one purchased on launch day - and have it immediately download a patch. Enough so that at least for me, it’s been easy to forget that this means the shipped game - the one you just bought - is unfinished.

And, I get it. I get that it takes time to press/burn/whatever and distribute the physical games, and from a financial perspective it makes sense to use the time between then and launch to continue to polish and improve the game rather than delay the launch (though that does also create the risk of poor early reviews due to delayed patches, as Saints Row: The Third on Switch sadly illustrates).

But one of the supposed advantages of buying games physically is that you aren’t reliant on the internet to play them. Someday, the Switch eshop servers will get shut down. If I lose the data on my Switch’s memory card after that, I won’t be able to redownload and play any of the games I bought digitally. I will still be able to play the games I bought physically. But only the unpatched versions. And looking at my shelf, for almost all of my Switch games that means a noticeably worse version of the game.

Live-service games, patches, and updates mean there’s less and less reason to buy games physically now. The preservation value of the physical media is significantly lessened. These days, I only buy physical because on consoles it often somehow costs less. (Which is its own rant for another time.)

It’s tempting to think of things we buy as permanent, but in many cases we’re really just paying for the experience of having something for some amount of time.

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Musou Tactics

After playing Fire Emblem Warriors, I thought I was super into Musou games. After moving on to the (earlier release) Hyrule Warriors, while I do still enjoy Musou it turns out that what I was super into was Fire Emblem Warriors. In particular, its tactical depth.

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Easy Mode: You Gotta Want It

So, one of the positions in the whole Sekiro/Soulsborne/difficulty/easy-mode debate is what I would sum up as “easy mode should be there for the players who need it.” A couple of examples:

  • Jarrod Johnston explains why he’s no longer anti-Easy, mentioning that previously he “never thought that someone might not have the ability to improve, and it took a while for [him] to understand that getting through a tough game can be more than just a matter of time and commitment.”

  • Mark Brown explains his complicated view on questions like “Should Dark Souls have an Easy Mode?”, making a few statements like, “I’m in favor of giving people more ways to play if they need them…” but emphasizing the importance of making sure players know what the intended experience is. He also describes Celeste’s Assist Mode by saying, “This isn’t an easy mode that I might switch down to if the game’s kicking my butt. It’s an assist mode that’s just there for those who really feel they need it.”

On the surface, I’m in agreement with these folks - we all want easy modes or similar accommodations in games. We’re on the same side of the overall debate. But I’d sum up my position slightly differently, as “easy mode should be there for the players who want it.” It’s only one word of difference, but I think it’s an important one.

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I know hoarding restorative items is a joke, but...

I know hoarding restorative items is a joke, but it still rubs me the wrong way when games have an auto-revive item that gets used automatically when you die just because it was in your inventory. Like, those things are usually expensive or rare; let me save it for a tough boss fight instead of burning it one screen after a save point because my finger slipped.

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The Value of Fake Achievement

A long time ago, I wrote about how games can present fake achievement which can be abused by players in unhealthy ways. Someday I’d like to revisit this topic and discuss how fake achievement can be used in healthy ways.

For example, here’s an article about experiments showing that “meaningless rituals” can improve feelings of self-discipline and thereby improve actual self-control. Sometimes, going through defined steps and completing goals - even empty ones that accomplish nothing - make us feel like we can do things and we can then bring that motivation to our actual real-life goals.

I’ve had motivational rough patches where, say, completing quests in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning was a vital part of my writing process. And plenty of people have suggested that, say, Stardew Valley could be helpful for players with depression, or Minecraft for players with ADHD, due to the way their goals are structured.

Fake achievement in games can be a stepping stone and not just a crutch. I think that’s worth a closer look.

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Put off by Pickups

In many games, enemies drop money, items, or other resources. Sometimes this is figurative - you just receive those resources when you defeat the enemy - but other times it’s literal, with the resources appearing as pickups where the enemy was defeated and not being received until you go collect them.

I think the pickup approach is almost always a bad idea.

To illustrate why, I’ll start with an example of a game that does it well: Super Stardust HD.. An Asteroids-like shooter where you navigate a crowded level avoiding and destroying hazards, safely collecting the pickups dropped by enemies and rocks is part of the always-be-moving-always-be-shooting challenge. But it’s more interesting than that, since some pickups change over time and you might want to let them change before you nab them - plus, boosting through a large number of point pickups in one go rewards a significant bonus, so there’s a risk/reward trade-off. The point is - collecting the pickups is just as interesting a part of the gameplay as destroying the enemies in the first place. It challenges the same skills and presents similar interesting decisions.

This isn’t the case in most games. Usually, collecting the pickups isn’t interesting at all; it’s just another thing you have to do. Defeating the enemy is usually the interesting and challenging part, and going over to collect the pickup is usually an extra rote step you are obligated to take for no clear reason and with no interesting challenge or decision involved.

As a player, your instinct might be to minimize the time the interesting action is interrupted by uninteresting action and just collect all the pickups at once after defeating all the enemies. But obnoxiously often, games punish or prevent this - pickups fade away after a few seconds, or the action continually leads you away from where pickups have already dropped, or defeating the last enemy immediately ejects you from the area without letting you collect anything. So your attempt to maximize the enjoyability of the game is punished by the game robbing you of the rewards you’ve already earned in combat.

It is fun seeing the resources drop, but there’s no reason to force the player to collect them. (Oddly, Hyrule Warriors recognizes this with rupees which shower colorfully out of enemies and pots before being collected automatically but still obliges the player to pick up dropped materials and weapons which are much easier to miss and much more valuable.) Some games - I think Kingdom Hearts did this, I’m not sure if the sequels all do - include optional upgrades that increase your pickup collection radius, allowing you to mostly forget about the tedious collection and just enjoy the game as it should have been all along.

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Easy Modes and Backward Reasoning

I think my ironically-favorite part of the discourse around difficulty and easy modes in Sekiro and Soulsborne games is that anti-easy folks make both of these claims:

  1. Adding an easy mode to a Soulsborne game would ruin the intended experience of overcoming challenge through persistence and learning.
  2. Soulsborne games already have an easy mode since you can summon a friend.

I don’t know if I’ve heard any individual person say both these things together - the kettle logic might be a little too obvious if you’re actually saying “Easy mode would be bad, and anyway they already have it and that’s good!” But I also don’t think I’ve seen anyone really address the contradiction here.