Survive today to (maybe) fight tomorrow

As my Fallout 4 playthrough goes on, more thoughts accumulate on the back of my mind.

There is one, especially, that I wanted to express & explore, and it is about Survival Mode.

Since Fallout 3 I always tried to play these games with the Survival Mode activated, because it gave me a better feeling of tough life in the post-atomic wasteland. The whole experience changes in many ways, forcing the player to pay attention to hunger, thirst, and other needs. It gives more importance to some items that, otherwise, would be just scrap stuff, like drugs or crafting materials required to create precious antibiotics.

Without Survival Mode elements, Fallout to me is kinda boring. I love the lore, and the gameplay is fantastic nevertheless. However, the lack of survival elements cracks open the fourth wall, disrupting the suspension of disbelief and reducing all my actions to pure mechanic redundancy. While noticing this, I also realized that Survival Mode contextualizes a dynamic familiar to many, many open-world games, namely procrastination.

‘scuse me sir, do you have time to talk about our lord and savior, Beefus?

How many times you found yourself gathering ten herbs for a random guy, in order to complete a secondary mission (and therefore grind to higher levels) completely ignoring, like, a world to be saved? Let’s take Final Fantasy XV as an example: at some point Noctis has to reach a really important place, and you know it’s super urgent. But you stop nonetheless the Regalia next to a juicy enemy and beat the crap out of it, because there is a hunting subquest to achieve.

Survival Mode forces you to stop, and help the random guy or kill the juicy enemy: you either need to trade something the guy has, to save yourself, or the juicy enemy drops some very good meat. So the whole playthrough goes on, (necessary) secondary adventure after secondary adventure, kinda coherent and credible. The way I like it.

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Agdy days

These are odd days.

Lately I am facing a lot of “trolley problems” in either personal life, work life, or other situations where I either do nothing and watch things become a mess, or I do something and cause a slighter (maybe more manageable) mess. In any case it appears I cannot be satisfied by the choice I make, which is kinda frustrating. The funny side of the story, though, is that this happens also when I play games.

Let’s take Fallout 4 as an example: after Bethesda announced Fallout 76 I was so hyped that I picked the fourth up again, since I never completed the main story and wanted to see where it goes. Among the reasons that led me to abandon it in the first place there was my character, a guy somewhere in between Rambo and the lone wanderer seen in Fallout 3. It was so shallow that I lost interest in it, so this time I made an extra effort to build a very specialized character that could be interesting from start to finish.

My first attempt was a heavy weapon expert specialized in power armors. The guy goes by the name of Connor, and walks around with a machine gun, always wearing his customized armor. It worked, especially considering I’m playing in Survival Mode, but at some point I realized there was potential for something different…hence I restarted the game.

The second try was a ninja named Kisuke: stealthy dude who lurks in the shadows, waiting for the right chance to strike. While the idea looked bright and amazing on paper, playing such a character within Survival Mode is a nightmare (or at least it is for me). Enemies spot you too easily, and I noticed that the Ninja perk (which should multiply 4x any stealth melee damage) does not trigger all the times for some reason. So I was always entering gunfights with a knife. How about nope.

At that point I had another choice to make: restart the game again with another build (I have many in mind: the beastmaster, the scientist, the leader), or just stay with what I had and go on. This time I choose the latter. Playing as Connor might not be so very particular, but it is better than entering an endless loop of dissatisfaction. And I’m starting to get attached to it, after all.

Zombie 3

The other day I finally completed The Evil Within. It has been a harsh playtrough, to say the least: aside the swearing and all my usual grumbling, I must admit that it is a really solid game. Although it implements some major design choices that I cannot tolerate, as you could read (here and here), my final impression is positive. Not sure if I’m going to play the sequel, tho. The setting/lore did not pull me in at all, and I’m afraid the it would be a very “more of the same” situation for which I have zero interest at the moment.

This is a problem I have with games (and books, and movies): if the setting is not to my taste, I tend to avoid it; on the contrary, if I like the setting, I can overlook all the kind of flaws. For example, I am not interested in the Witcher franchise. At all. Maybe The Witcher 3 is the greatest game of all time (as I heard many times), but…meh. I mean, okay. That’s cool, but none of my business. Maybe one day I will force myself into playing it, just to observe why people is so enthusiastic about it. Maybe.

However, I could play Fallout: New Vegas and the whole Dishonored saga anytime, many times in a row. It already happened, actually. While some of my friends complain about every little bug that is in those games, I simply don’t care: the feeling of lurking into a lore that I like is so overwhelming that anything else fades in the background.

To me, there’s a power in world building, in creating a compelling narrative universe that makes me wonder “what’s next?” “what happened here?” and so on, that other design elements cannot reach.

I guess it’s just a matter of personal attitude. After all, I’m also a super fan of the Riddick universe. Nuff said.

Zombie 2

Since yesterday’s rant was not specific enough, here’s some more arguing against The Evil Within design choices.

Today I faced a bossfight that begun right after a cutscene. As soon as the fight starts, the playable character has no ways to escape and embraces his weapons; to me, this appears as a clear hint for the player: it says “You must stay there and fight”.

However, shooting at this huge monster has little, or no effect at all. At some point NPCs yell some directions that could drive your attention to the real threats or, rather, to the threats you should face in order to progress into the game. Sadly enough these directions are not clear, perhaps because Italian localization changed them a bit, or they are just too vague, and while the player tries to figure them out, the mega boss swings its arms to kill the protagonist.

Then you are forced to restart the battle, and watch the cutscene (which you cannot skip completely) all over again. This happens on a loop until you figure out precisely how to move, what to do, etc.

Now, I like this “puzzle-solving” attitude applied to bossfights, when there is a pattern to discover or a way out to find. I really do. But forcing the player to watch over and over again a cutscene in preparation for the fight is kinda boring, frustrating. It works against the flow of a satisfying gameplay.

Zombie

At some point, while playing Tango GameworksThe Evil Within, you will eventually find some corpses that aren’t quite as dead as they look. They are actually not dead enough, so you – a very good Samaritan – need to help them to stay put. Some of them will try and get up again and again (and again), as all good zombies do. Because they refuse to surrender, always trying to evade death (like this blog of mine, for example).

It feels like it’s time for me to do my thing – writing – again, in any possible way. In the last few weeks I typed lots of words one after the other so that they made sense, forming stories. But I missed writing about games, and here we are once again.

Contain your enthusiasm, mate

So. The Evil Within.

I’ve been waiting to play this game since it was announced, but [things] happened and I was able to get my hands on it just lately. At first it reminded me the old Resident Evil games: its third-person gameplay with vintage mechanics quickly got me excited. However, as I adventured deeper into this hallucinating (and very well written) horror, I started to swear a lot. Not surprising anyone here, but this game is very hard sometimes. Very hard.

Not just because designers were able to put challenges into it, no: it appears that there are some buggy mechanics, or design flaws, intentionally left there to increase the game’s difficulty. For example, aiming with a pistol could be really frustrating due to the fact that a shot could miss the target even if it was perfectly centered in the HUD’s gunsight. Then you have boss fights: in order to understand what to do, or just do it right, sometimes you need to play a long session four, five, or six times in a row before finally advancing. Not to mention glitches, buggy hitboxes and all the kind of stuff. Result: hours and hours of frustrating gameplay.

This kind of approach to game design just makes me sad. Seriously devs, don’t be like this. I want to play your game, which i like very much, so let me just learn from my errors and get better (> INB4 GIT GUD FAM), do not frustrate me with ruthless enemies, rusty mechanics or frustrating bugs.

Ok? Thanks.

Praise the Nutella!

In a recent commercial broadcasting on Italian television the speaker asks the audience if they’d like some cocoa spread. Or an adherable yellow paper rectangle. Or maybe a plastic brick to build something.

The clever hints to Nutella, Post-it and Lego brands work well with the publicized product (which I unfortunately forgot, lol). However, this made me think about how much brands influence our language, and therefore our way of thinking. Sometimes with very dangerous, or at least worrying, results.

Take Dark Souls as an example: since it became ultra popular as a game, and then as a genre (the souls-like), its brand has been used to define and describe all the kinds of stuff. There’s a quite funny Twitter profile that aggregates every questionable mention to From Software’s title. To give you some examples:

Now, you can start to see my point here. Dark Souls nowadays has become a synonymous to “difficult game”, and many people on the internet begun to use it in a re-definition of highly punishing titles that already existed, or that share some common features in terms of gameplay, structure, aesthetics. As if difficult stuff didn’t exist prior to Dark Souls and languages didn’t offer any coherent way to express the concept of hard-to-beat game before. There’s an implicit subtext of laziness around this phenomenon, that finds its peak in the more recent exploit of the TV Series Black Mirror.

(git gud, Netflix)

Since our world seems the prelude to a very big dystopian fiction, many creepy facts that involve a wrong use of technologies are happening all around the globe. So, how do you think that journalists, opinion leaders, and newsers are defining those? With the sentence “It’s like a Black Mirror episode” (or any other declination of it), OF COURSE. Because, you know, dystopia as a genre never existed before. Orwell, Bradbury, Ballard, Dick, and co. are just pre-copycats of Black Mirror, apparently.

This association of a brand to an already existing product, or fact, tends de-construct said product/fact. The brand becomes a category, it becomes the product itself. Hence, influencing our way of thinking. Opening Twitter (and Facebook) these days feels like Dark Souls was the precursor to challenging games (say hi to NES’ Ninja Gaiden or Prince of Persia), while the Black Mirror brand created a genre on its own – de facto erasing from people’s memory a whole literature of dystopian classics.

Which, paradoxically enough, sounds too much like a damn Black Mirror episode.

Shadow of Decency

Sometimes we make mistakes and we know it. We recognize them since they are just newborn thoughts in our minds.

My last calculated fault goes by the title of Middle Earth: Shadow of War. I was well aware that playing that game would have resulted in a huge disappointment, but did this stop me from buying it? No it didn’t.

WARNING – the following post includes major spoilers

I would love to annoy you with the countless tales of hatred, betrayal, and unexpected friendship involving procedurally-generated orcs. Hoshgrish, Pushkrimp, Golm…names that will forever (i.e. – for the next month or two) remind me of some epic adventures. The Nemesis System in its 2.0 format is a masterpiece: it works, like it or not, and it sustains the game all alone while allowing emerging narratives to pop up like beautiful flowers in a fertilized field.

Unfortunately, that is problem number 1: any of those narratives is WAY better than the scripted storyline.

Shadow of War takes place once again in Mordor, right after the events of its predecessor. Talion and Celebrimbor are still bonded by ancient magic, as resolute as ever to dethrone the Dark Lord from his comfy seat in Barad-dûr’s attic. Plan A is to forge a new, purer Ring (lolwut.jpg), use it to subdue an army of orcs, and then declare war to Mordor. However, in the first ten minutes of the game Shelob (remember the giant-ass spider that almost killed Frodo in the movies? Well, forget it; she is some good looking lady now BECAUSE OF REASONS) pops up and takes the Second One Ring for herself. Which would be it. One of the evilest and most powerful creatures of Middle Earth has the equivalent of a mass murdering weapon. It’s done. Game Over. So long for Plan A.

But NO! She is kinda good now. You help her for a while, then she gives back the Ring, aaand…there you go again messing with poor orcs’ minds.

This is just an example for the long series of nonsensical situations in which the protagonists find themselves during the game.

So it comes problem number 2: scripted narrative has no internal consistency at all.

As a LOTR fan, Shadow of War bugged me deeply. It already happened with Shadow of Mordor, when the narrative went totally nuts and became a delirious megalomania, allowing the protagonist to confront Sauron (!) directly. This time, however, it appears that writers had more creative space to experiment with, and despite their good efforts they achieved some remarkable failure: the plot seems a fan fiction written by a teenager during a very hard acid trip. Word.

1V1 ME BRO

I wrote a list of every single plot point that bothered me; its length was scary, so I will stick to one point only: the whole War in the title has been never mentioned in any of Tolkien’s works nor adaptations. Yes, it could be argued that this whole saga is an adaptation on its own, with its rules and canons. But since it uses licenses (and designs) from Peter Jackson’s LOTR movies, all of this nonsense makes the two “Shadow of” simply inconsistent with the fictional universe in which they take place. Which is a more serious issue than it would seem, because:

[…] when a player starts to play a game in which he enacts an avatar character, he agrees to play the role that goes with the character. It’s up to the designer to decide how strictly that role is defined. Superman, for example, has no moral freedom at all; a player who wishes to enact Superman signs up to Superman’s moral constraints. (Adams, 2013)

In Shadow of War, the player enacts an avatar character (created ad hoc for the game) that should have very limited influence in interfering with the original story narrated in the LOTR saga. Nevertheless designers decided to disregard that in order to give the player a more relevant role in the fictional world, most likely with the sole purpose of entertaining their customers, hence getting a wider consent and – I would dare to say – sell more copies. In fact, the whole narrative is a mixture of fan-service tropes and overused cliches.

And this leads us – last but not least – to problem number 3: ending, grinding, and microtransacting.

You probably already heard about Act IV, a redundant series of missions required to see the game’s ending (and upsetting) cinematic. Hours over hours of repetitive actions that allow the player to get better equipment and stronger orcs – basically, grinding at its worst. I get that the design of this act represents decades of endless war between Talion’s army and Sauron’s, but the result is just a tedious waste of time that breaks the already messy narrative flow in a very bad way. To exacerbate the whole thing, there are the infamous microtransactions: if the player spends enough money on loot chests, he can skip through this long dullness just acquiring the strongest orcs. No further comment required.

Obviously if you can do that, it does not necessarily mean that you have to. However, the design choices clearly push to persuade the player into buying a chest or two. Frustration is a powerful weapon these days, as there are so many games to play and each one of us has so little time to enjoy them.

I truly hope that the guys at Monolith learn from their recent mistakes. The Nemesis System has to shine again, yet very far from wasted licenses, senseless grinding, and awful money-grabbing.

References

– Adams, Ernest (2013). Three Problems for Interactive Storytellers, Resolved, Gamasutra.com (http://www.designersnotebook.com/Columns/118_Three_Problems_Resolved/118_three_problems_resolved.htm) Retrieved: 11/16/2017