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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Bayonetta: The One That Got Away

To me, Bayonetta will always be the franchise that got away.

When I started using GameFly over a decade ago, I loaded up my queue with tons of games I was curious about. One of the games that made its way into my list early on was the original Bayonetta. It wasn’t my usual type of game - I’d never played Devil May Cry or Viewtiful Joe. But the game was very well received - it got “universal acclaim” according to Metacritic, and people were talking about the game a lot. About its “very easy automatic” mode (which I talked about too) and whether its portrayal of its title character was sexist or empowering.

In short - Bayonetta was clearly an Important game, and I wanted to be part of the cultural moment and contribute to the conversation. But I wasn’t impressed by the demo, and whenever I did try a “spectacle fighter” or “character action game” or whatever we’re calling them these days, I didn’t like it. So as much as I wanted to experience Bayonetta, I didn’t really want to play it. I put it in my queue, but it stayed there for years as I kept sliding it further down and the cultural moment passed.

Eventually, I had to admit to myself that even with GameFly, games were coming out much faster than I could play them. I had to prioritize. I had to admit to myself what games were in my queue just because I felt like they should be and take them out to make room for the games I actually wanted to play.

I have a tiny twinge of sadness any time I take a game off of my GameFly queue unplayed. It’s a small admission of defeat to the inevitable march of time and entropy. It’s an acknowledgment that we can never do all that we wish we could. And whenever I add a game to my queue, in the back of my head I wonder if I’ll just be removing it in a year or two.

But Bayonetta is always the game I think of. It’s the highest profile game that had been in my queue for the longest amount of time, before I admitted I was never going to play it or its sequels. It’s the one that got away.

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Indirect Boss Fights in Platformers

I’ve been thinking about boss fights in platformers. Mostly because I just played Effie, a 3D platformer whose boss fights… kinda aren’t boss fights.

In Effie, you play as young warrior Galand cursed by evil witch Melira. Melira is the villain for the whole game and shows up for a boss fight at the end of every chapter. But you never fight her directly.

Instead, she hovers menacingly nearby while you deal with waves of normal enemies that she’s apparently summoning and/or traverse a hazardous platforming course. Melira’s only direct contribution to the fight is a telegraphed area-of-effect attack you need to avoid periodically. She does get a health bar, though - sometimes you deplete it just by defeating her summoned minions, other times by reaching and activating levers that trigger hazards she just happens to be in range of - and once her health bar is empty you win and (except in the final fight) she retreats. (The most perplexing encounter has you damage her by pouring wine on her and then when she’s had enough she escapes by diving into the vat of wine.)

So, okay. Is this a boss fight? It’s narratively framed as one. It’s a climactic chapter-capping encounter with the game’s antagonist in which she tries to kill you and you fight back until there is a clear winner and loser. And it’s also mechanically framed as one, challenging you to use your accumulated combat and platforming skills in a high-pressure gauntlet. The only thing I can point to that makes it not a boss fight is that you never really fight the boss - the encounter still serves every other purpose of boss fights I can think of.

But I think the fact that she doesn’t engage you directly undercuts her as a villain. She’s much less threatening if all she can throw at you is an easily-avoidable area attack and things you’ve defeated many times before. She’s much less impressive if you can compel her to retreat just by defeating a bunch of other enemies or if she repeatedly positions herself exactly where she needs to be in order to be vulnerable to triggerable hazards.

It’s normal for bosses in platformers to test you on combat and platforming skills that you’ve learned and practiced earlier, and thus in a sense not actually provide anything new and unique. Especially if the boss is supposed to be much more powerful than you and it would be silly to let you attack them directly. But I think it’s a lot more satisfying if the game finds a way to frame the conflict as a direct battle, even if you can’t use brute force.

I find myself thinking, for example, of Klaww, a boss in Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. Klaww is gigantic and you can’t just, like, walk up and punch him. So the fight is mechanically a series of platforming challenges in which you avoid Klaww’s thrown boulders and navigate platforms suspended over lava to reach him, where you don’t damage him directly so much as cause him to stumble and drop a boulder on his own head. It’s not especially cathartic because Klaww himself hadn’t been built up as an emotionally-significant antagonist - he’s just a gate you have to get through to proceed to the next area. But he still scared me the first time I played and the fight is clearly framed as you outmaneuvering a much stronger foe. I wish fighting Melira in Effie had felt that way.

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Fake MMOs and Fake Loot Boxes

I like Space Pioneer, but it does one thing that bugs me a lot. To properly explain it, I first need to talk about a PS2 JRPG from 2003 because that’s how I roll.

The first game in the .hack multimedia franchise is called .hack//Infection. It’s a sci-fi JRPG taking place in an alternate near-future - but it focuses on a fictional fantasy MMORPG in the vein of Phantasy Star Online that your character spends most of their time playing. So in practice, the actual gameplay is a JRPG pretending to be a MMORPG.

In 2003, I was way into JRPGs and curious about MMOs, but was quickly repelled by .hack//Infection’s approach. The way I remember it, in the game’s first hour or two you find yourself in a blocky, procedural-looking dungeon teaming up with another “player” to kill some monsters. You add each other as friends and later you sign on for another session and your friend isn’t online so you have to solo for a while.

Now, this was some sixteen years ago so I might have some details wrong and I was definitely dumber about game design back then, but this setup struck me as obviously wrong-headed. The (probably unfair) vibe I got was that the game was made to cash in on the rising popularity of MMORPGs by imitating one in a cheaper-to-make single-player RPG, without recognizing that the things that are easy to copy about MMORPGs aren’t the good things about them - they’re the unfortunate consequences and limitations required by the good things which you can’t copy without actually being a MMORPG.

MMORPGs are appealing because you can work together with real people to progress. That’s the good part. You can’t copy that in a standard JRPG. A consequence of your allies being real people is that they aren’t always playing at the same time you are (or in a position to play the same content). And blocky, procedural dungeons are a consequence of the need to provide gobs of content for players to chew through together over time and keep their subscriptions up. In a single-player single-purchase game with a story and ending, incorporating these negative consequences is just making the game worse without providing the positives that outweigh those problems in an MMO.

To be fair, I don’t actually know whether .hack//Infection does something worthwhile that justifies these choices; I dropped the game pretty quickly. But in those first couple of hours, it felt like the game was trying to make me feel like I was playing a MMORPG through superficial imitation that could only ever copy the downsides and I couldn’t understand why anyone would make a game like that.

Okay, so, that brings us to Space Pioneer.

Space Pioneer’s progression is all about upgrades. Virtually everything about your character and their arsenal can be upgraded. You pay for these upgrades using coins earned by defeating enemies and completing objectives, but to be allowed to purchase an upgrade, you need to have enough cards for that upgrade. And upgrade cards are rewarded in what can only be called loot boxes.

There’s no way to buy them with real-world money. (Definitely not in the microtransaction-free Switch version of the game, but from what I can see they don’t look purchasable in the freemium mobile version either.) But completing certain in-game objectives awards you with random bunches of upgrade cards that differ by rarity and are presented with a box-opening animation. It seems very clearly intended to be evocative of loot boxes - and why would you do that?

Nobody actually likes loot boxes. They are a consequence of a particular type of monetization, and while often profitable their consequences for a game’s experience are usually negative. The reason to include them is to make money, not because people actually like them - so why add them if you aren’t going to use them to get money?

And indeed, I’d absolutely argue their impact in Space Pioneer is negative. The first few I received were a little exciting, but when I realized that I wasn’t actually earning upgrades but rather the opportunity to buy upgrades and that I was much more constrained by coins than cards and always had plenty of available upgrades I couldn’t afford, I stopped paying any attention to what cards I received and it no longer felt like a reward. In fact, the only real impact it ever had was when I got unlucky and stopped getting cards for the frag grenade and then got a mission objective to use a higher level of frag grenade than I had access to. I couldn’t complete this objective until I finally randomly got more frag grenade upgrade cards.

In other words, rather than being a reward system, the upgrade cards were only a wall to progression that randomly blocked off upgrades and objectives - in a game where the progression is all about upgrades and objectives and where you can’t even spend money to get past the wall.

I don’t know what the designers of .hack//Infection or Space Pioneer had in mind, but to me these both seem like cargo cult design, incorporating popular elements without an understanding of why they’re popular or what impact they will have when superficially imitated. Only the costs are incurred with none of the benefits. They’re just the game getting in its own way.

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Eternal Sunshine of the Gaming Mind

I’ve seen a lot of variations of the question “If you could erase your memory of one game so you could play it again for the first time, what game would you pick?” And, like… I don’t get it.

I know the question isn’t meant literally. It’s like the question of what books you’d take to a desert island; if you give a practical answer you are missing the point. The desert island framing is just an evocative way to sum up the harder-to-express actual question, which is more along the lines of “if for some reason you had to pick right now a short list of what books you could read for the rest of your life, which would they be”? Which in turn is really a way to ask for someone’s favorite books - but specifically weighted toward longevity and re-readability. The extra constraint changes the ranking and is thus more interesting than just asking someone to rattle off their already-decided favorites.

Similarly, I know the forget-a-game question must also be trying to get at something related to but distinct from just asking someone what their favorite game is. Responding practically, I’d minimize unnecessary memory loss by picking a tiny game I’d played ages ago and already mostly forgotten. That’s clearly missing the point, but what is the point?

To me, most of the value of a good game comes from the memory of it. That’s the part I get to savor and enjoy for much longer. I get to look back and understand how the game’s parts come together to form a greater whole. I get to talk about it with others and share our experiences and insights. And I get to see how games influence each other as the medium grows and evolves. I love playing good games, but I might love more the way that every game I play increases my understanding and appreciation of games as a whole.

From that perspective, replaying a game I do remember can be more valuable than recapturing the original experience, as it provides opportunities for experimentation or for seeing new things I missed before. (Studies suggest that people consistently underestimate how much new stuff there is to find in repeat media and experiences, and thus underestimate how much they’d enjoy revisiting them.) This can leave me with a more complete picture of the game and a more nuanced appreciation and understanding - made richer by what I’ve learned and observed from other games in the meantime.

So okay, what if the question is really about your best gaming experiences that you can’t come close to matching through replaying today? When I think of games like that, the difference isn’t something you can surmount with a memory wipe. As a teenager, I fell completely in love with Chrono Trigger - but that’s because I was a different person then (and not in an entirely healthy way). I couldn’t recapture that experience without regressing to my adolescence. And in college, I had a complete blast playing City of Heroes, but that was more about the people I played with than the game itself - and the community has largely moved on from MMORPGs, and that particular game is no longer even playable. I’d need a time machine for that one.

I think for a lot of us, our favorite gaming memories are only partially about the game. They are about who we were, what our life was like, and what the world was like. Trying to recapture them with a memory wipe would just destroy a treasured memory and replace it with an inferior imitation that couldn’t possibly live up to the original.

All I can really find in this question that makes any sense to me is “What is your favorite game with little to no replay value?” Which I guess does act like the desert island question as a new constraint on the favorite-game question, though it seems like a less interesting one to me.

…but I guess my answer is Portal.

#gaming #video games #nostalgia

Tags: Thought

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When a story is “good for a game”

It always frustrates me to see someone describe a game’s story as “good for a game”.

Video games are a young medium relying on young technology. They started with significant technical limitations which made it very difficult to do much traditional storytelling, creating a lingering negative perception of their capabilities. Even when a game rises above the average, it’s likely to be damned with faint praise that its story is good “for a game” but not as good as a proportionately high-quality book, film, stage production, radio play, etc.

And, like, this is sort of true. But it’s a weird and misleading way to look at it.

There’s the obvious objection that story is just one element of games. Comparing a game’s story to a novel is weird in the same way as comparing a game’s graphics to a painting or its soundtrack to a symphony. Taking one element from a multifaceted medium to compare to a medium that is just that element is kind of dumb. The more fair comparison is the overall experience - is playing the game an experience of similar relative quality as reading the novel, observing the painting, or listening to the symphony?

But this prompts the equally-obvious rejoinder that a game is still improved by improving its constituent parts. A beautiful game with a great soundtrack and excellent storytelling is more enjoyable than an ugly one with bad music and poor writing. So it can still be worthwhile to look at those parts and to use as measuring sticks the great works in media that focus on those elements.

The real objection is that these comparisons are always made in a way that completely destroys the core value of games as a medium.

Games are interactive and dynamic to a degree unmatched by other forms of art or media. Players don’t simply consume the experience of a game - they co-create it.

Jotting down a static plot summary of a game and seeing that it compares unfavorably to a novel is like taking the audio from a film - stripped of all visuals and cinematography - and seeing that it compares unfavorably to a radio play. You can’t remove the core of an art form and then declare it worse than other art forms that still have their cores. Converting it for comparison destroyed what made it work.

Do games have worse storytelling than novels? Maybe. But if so, it’s because they aren’t supposed to have storytelling. They are supposed to have storyplaying, and no novel has that.

(In other words.)

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Roadmap Roulette

So, like, I understand the economic realities that have resulted in games launching unfinished and then getting substantial post-launch updates. I did complain about how this devalues physical media, but I’ve mostly made my peace with it. However, I am a busy adult with a substantial backlog who basically doesn’t have time to replay games. And the more interested I am in a game and the more I’m anticipating it, the more I care about getting the best and most definitive experience of it. So for games whose release I’m actively following - if it launches with a roadmap of major updates scheduled over the next year, for me that basically means the game actually launches a year later.

But that’s all fine. Like I said, I get it - there are a lot of reasons (especially for smaller studios) that this Early-Access-lite approach makes sense. And it’s not like I don’t have other games to play in the meantime. What isn’t fine is when this happens with multi-platform games and all the roadmaps and update announcements just talk about the game getting the update and don’t say on which platforms and it’s unclear whether the update is rolling out at different dates or skipping some platforms entirely (especially when you find out that, say, the PC version is made by the primary developers and the console ports are handled by a third party with much less transparency) so you don’t even know what the trade-off choice is.

Most games that are on Switch and something else, I’d rather play on Switch for the portability - but it’s often bizarrely difficult to find whether the updates that came to the Steam version have come to the Switch version, are going to come to it at some unknown date, or are just never coming at all. And so I end up just… never buying the game.

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Heckdivers

I love finding clusters of games that are built around similar concepts but which differ in important ways. I’ve previously argued that good games are beacons in design space, pointing us to an area likely to have many other good potential games nearby - it’s fun to see it prove out.

Helldivers, for example, is a top-down co-op shooter starring space marines killing aliens and completing tasks on hostile worlds. It’s clearly a good game, but I’m not quite in the audience for it. The tone of Starship Troopers-like dystopian satire casting the players as obvious bad guys if you pay attention to the mission descriptions isn’t an appealing fantasy to me, and I dislike the way the game basically must be played online with strangers, especially when its mechanics (friendly fire, easy-to-alert enemy patrols, etc.) require coordination and cooperation between the players. I played it a bit with Senpai-chan, and when we screwed up near at the end of a mission in a way that delayed our escape shuttle, our online teammate team-killed us in order to safely escape themselves - and as far as I can tell, this was mechanically the correct choice to make. I’m not attacking this design - but I want to be clear it is not for me.

But there’s so much else about Helldivers’s theming and structure that is for me. I like twin-stick shooters! I like co-op! I like sci-fi! I like mission-based structure! If Helldivers let me pop the hood and tweak things, then - like Razbuten with Halo 2 - I’m sure Senpai-chan and I could have found a version of the game we both loved.

That’s not an option, so I’m glad there are other games exploring nearby regions of design space. There’s Battle Planet - Judgement Day, which casts the players as escaped criminals and has a more roguelike structure but otherwise hits a lot of the same beats - twin-stick co-op shooter about killing aliens and completing tasks on hostile worlds. I tried it, it was also clearly solid, but still not for me (I don’t find playing as a murderous criminal more appealing than playing as a fascist soldier, and roguelikes are the wrong kind of repetitive for me).

But now we’ve also got Space Pioneer - another top-down co-op shooter starring space marines killing aliens and completing tasks on hostile worlds. And this one finally tries a version of the formula that resonates with me. You don’t play as a bad guy. You don’t need to go online. Your progress is never lost. Gameplay varies at a good rate, with objectives that encourage you to change up your play style, weapon, and gear on a regular basis. It’s Helldivers with much more chill and that’s was I was looking for. I’ve barely put the game down since starting it.

Some might call Space Pioneer a Helldivers clone, but I wouldn’t. I like when games take inspiration from each other but don’t stop there, and bring their elements to new audiences.

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First Eleven's Free

Given that attention is more important than price on the Switch eShop, I’m impressed by the marketing-through-discounts done by QubicGames.

In addition to periodically putting their older games on sale, QubicGames often offers launch-window discounts on their new titles - if you already own a QubicGames-published game. This basically means they can send launch announcements for their new titles to people through the news channel for the game they own where it won’t get buried in the huge list of games coming out every week - but in a way that is less annoying, because it’s a coupon and not just an ad, and it’s positioned as a loyalty reward rather than just a devaluing of the game.

It’s a clever system, and it got me to purchase Space Pioneer during its launch window (and I’m really glad I did - but we’ll talk about that game later). But of course this only works once you own one of their games - so it is important that they still do regular sales as well. I didn’t know about it until I picked up One Strike on sale, and for all I know there are a bunch of other publishers doing the same thing whose ecosystems I just haven’t entered.

But now, QubicGames is doing a much more aggressive push to get people on board - over the second half of December, they are giving away ten games as long as you own a QubicGames game. The magnitude of this promotion has gotten a lot of attention, resulting in people online pointing out that one of their games is free-to-play, meaning you can get the games without spending any money at all.

The giveaway is structured such that as long as you pick up a given day’s free game, you are eligible to get the next game for free the next day - but all the games are also on sale, so if you miss a day you can cheaply get back on track. And the final game is not yet announced, so the mystery encourages people to do so even if they fall off near the end.

This is going to get a lot of people owning QubicGames games, feeling good about the publisher, and in a position to be marketed to for future titles. Clever stuff.

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Why am I still excited when a game has an arcade...

Why am I still excited when a game has an arcade with playable games in it? I find myself going “Ooooh, video games!” having completely forgotten that I am already playing a video game, one I chose to play instead of the many, many more arcade-like ones to which I have constant access.

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Persona 5 Action, not Persona 5 Musou

So like - I knew that Persona 5 Scramble was gonna be awesome. But that’s because I’ve played Hyrule Warriors and Dragon Quest Heroes and Fire Emblem Warriors and I know that when modern Omega Force makes a crossover Musou game, they are deeply respectful of the source material and they find interesting ways to incorporate it into the Musou formula, often in ways that improve both. They don’t just, like, reskin Dynasty Warriors and call it a day.

But not everybody knows that, and outside of its fan base Musou in general has a reputation as samey and shallow. Plus, back when “P5S” was being teased and nobody knew what it was yet, there were hints that it might be a Switch port of Persona 5 and a lot of people got excited for that possibility. So when the reveal was Persona 5 Scramble, a crossover Musou game by Omega Force, a lot of people were very disappointed.

Persona 5 Scramble thus had an uphill battle to fight. But it’s been doing a really good job managing expectations.

First, it was probably the right choice not to call it Persona 5 Warriors. As compelling as that title would have been to players like me, for other players it’s better to avoid baking the Dynasty Warriors expectations right into the name.

Second, Atlus and Omega Force have been aggressively marketing the game via many trailers. Early trailers focused on gameplay that is clearly not just Dynasty Warriors and is strongly influenced by Persona 5. This resulted in write-ups saying things like “Persona 5 Scramble: The Phantom Strikers – the upcoming action role-playing game from Koei Tecmo and Omega Force – isn’t just some Dynasty Warriors-style spin-off. As evidenced by the title’s most recent livestream blowout, Scramble is actually an in-depth sequel to Persona 5.” The trailers keep coming, showing off gameplay systems and the game’s cast of beloved characters, and the response is always something like “The game continues to look like much more than your typical Dynasty Warriors-like experience, meaning it’s one we’re hotly anticipating as we head into 2020.

The game is being seen as an action-based sequel instead of a lazy cash-in spin-off. And as much as I already knew what it was going to be, and as frustrated as I am that this sort of marketing push is necessary for people not to just say “DYNASTY WARRIORS BOO!” and shut down when they hear “Omega Force”, I recognize that this is really good marketing and expectation management. It gets past the unfair, inaccurate perception people have and paints a clearer image of what the game actually is - to the benefit of both the developer and the game’s potential players.

And I’m hoping it’ll help change Omega Force’s reputation, and future Musou crossovers won’t need as huge a marketing budget to get a fair shake.