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

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Always take the shot (once)

Sometimes it just feels so weird to write about stuff that just happened, but I guess it would be even weirder if I kept my thoughts all for myself. Everyone has its own ways to express feelings, reflections, and such. Writing is how I do it.

A few moments ago I finished my first, and only, run of Life is Strange. I’m stating this because, as for many other games, I will not go through it ever again. “Is it *that* awful, then?” you might ask. On the contrary, it has been a fiery rollercoaster of feels, a true masterpiece. It has been so good, with all the choices I made and, oh!,  all the consequences, that I feel like traversing it again would not be fair. It would ruin my memories, alter the emotions and overall experience I enjoyed while playing it for the first time.

Look at all those FEELS, framed forever

It’s a broader issue, tho.

This could be considered the second chapter in my personal crusade against replayability. Fact is: interacting with the game in that time and space created for me what has been defined an alterbiography (Calleja, 2009). It built a set of specific emotions, reactions, thoughts, and interpretations of what was happening. Like a framed picture that cannot be erased, with all its good and bad memories. Playing it again would be problematic.

First, in that case I would create another alterbiography that would overlap with the previous one, different from the original. As alternate realities that merge together creating a greater mess. I would confuse memories, too. This happens a lot when I see a movie adaptation of a book, for example: circumstances, actions and characters overlap a lot in my mind.

Second, my choices would be conditioned by what I know about the game’s scripted narrative and mechanics. So instead of roleplaying, or selecting choices following a precise path through a fictional opera, I would try and merely exploit the game (as a mechanic object, an artifact).

Third, I cannot even imagine how much the value of what I felt could fall if I engaged the game again. This is kinda related to that time when I complained about death in Tides of Numenera.

So the question here is: do we really need to traverse certain games (or part of them) more than once? Do they need to be traversed again, in order to be good? Why would we do that? To get a trophy, a reward, the personal satisfaction for “100%” a game? To see all the possible choices? Why don’t we, instead, simply appreciate what we experienced just once? And look back at it, maybe smiling sadly, like we often do with photos.

The obvious answer to all this is “do whatever you want” – as in, it probably depends on how every single individual approaches the media.

However, I uninstalled the game right away. Didn’t want to fight the temptation to ruin its greatness by playing it again.

But you (all of you) should definitely give it a try.

Just once.

References

– Calleja, Gordon (2009). Experiential Narrative in Game Environments, DIGRA

Everything is (not) under control

What better chance there is to get back to write (about games) than a damn rant? Exactly: none.

So here I go and spend some words just for a personal vent.

Today I re-started Never Alone, a platform imbued with Inuit culture, that is a masterpiece in the field of cultural heritage representation on digital media. Which means that the game is all about you discovering a foreign culture through play, in a nice, emotional, powerful, and meaningful way. It is an important game to me, as I tried to achieve the same goal with a project, learning (the hard way) how difficult this could be.

However, as beautiful and mind-blowing this game is, it grinds my gears nevertheless.

IT DOES

The reason is simple: controls are difficult and sometimes counterintuitive. Not all of them, yet enough to become annoying in certain moments of the game. It is the same situation I found myself into when playing The Last Guardian: all is beautiful, deep, and spectacular, but then you find yourself swearing because things went wrong when they should have gone right. Not to mention any FIFA.

So let me be really straight about this: controls, in video games, are not important.

They are fundamental.

We are talking about artifacts that, for their very nature, require some kind of input from the user to properly function. There is a lot to be argued around this topic, but I believe that what I mean is common ground for many of us. Ok, sometimes the input from the player can be scheduled and automated, or received from uncommon hardware (did someone say BANANAS?), but remains a fundamental component of this medium.

Then what happens when a player is unable to send the desired input to the game? It just does not work. The experience becomes frustrating, and that frustration distracts the player from other stuff. In Never Alone’s case, an enraged player pays less attention to the message that the game tries to convey. He disregards the informative videos or, in the worst scenario, uninstalls the game. Losing an opportunity to learn something new, while the game lost the chance to teach that something.

>inb4 “But Dark Souls has major control flaws as well!”
>”[any Behtesda-related comment]”
>”Just git gud fam.”

Jokes apart, I think this is a serious matter, too often underestimated. When designing a game, it should be very important to be sure that the control scheme works properly or else the risk is to make something that no one would ever play. Or enjoy. Or even understand.

Operation nostalgia 64

Since when I lost my Nintendo 64 in that dungeon we have as garage, I have been sad.

But one day Playtonic Games announced their Kickstarter campaign to fund a 3D platformer called Yooka-Laylee. Giving me hope. They did not try to hide the fact that it would have been an operation nostalgia for N64 enthusiasts. Nothing more, nothing less than a “spiritual successor” to Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie. As a fan of that mentally challenged bear (and his abusive companion bird), I believed in Playtonic’s project since the beginning and pledged my reward – a digital copy of the game – at day one. Crowdfunding went very well, and finally Yooka-Laylee is here in all its splendor.

Am I happy? HELL YES.

Does it meet the expectations? Maybe too much.

Has it major design problems? Of course.

I’m reading a lot of conflicting opinions these days. Some people is reacting with incredible enthusiasm, some other people is not – and I believe that both parties have their good reasons. For example, I have read a very interesting article regarding Yooka-Laylee’s level design flaws compared to other 3D platformers of the past (especially Banjo-Kazooie, the #1 comparison meter in this case). I agree, to some extent: Yooka-Laylee does not bring anything new to the genre, nor reflects the greatness of certain old glories.

Good ol’ times…oh wait!

However, I also think that Playtonic’s game is a great (huge!) success in what it does: delivering a specific experience straight outta the ‘9os, with all its pros and cons. Ok, it does not represent a paradigm shift, but that’s an acceptable issue. Not every game should be innovative, genre-defining, or a masterpiece. Especially this, that did not even try, want, nor claim to do such a thing. To understand the value of Yooka-Laylee we should consider its purpose, and how the game achieves that purpose – that is, being a modern antique.

This is a concept that I have been pondering for a while, since when I got to play Breaking BytesXydonia. Some developers nowadays try to replicate the play experiences from past games, crafting modern products that remind antique stuff. Just like brand-new furniture created using the materials, and sometimes the techniques, from a past era. Playtonic enforced the feeling of playing an old N64 game on new consoles by using design choices, both bad and good, from nearly two decades ago. Doing so, they created a product that emulates the features of antique games. And it does it very well, to be honest. Yooka-Laylee has everything from the vintage golden-era of 3D platformers, except it does not hide behind a veil of emotive conditioning: we don’t look at it with nostalgia-lenses, we see it as it is yet tend to compare it with its “competitors” from recent or remote past.

Of course, adopting design choices from the 1998 blindly – or rather, deliberately – has its downsides. And I’m not just talking about rusty gameplay, camera issues, oversimplified UI. Here is an insight by Ian Bogost as an example of what I mean:

In Yooka-Laylee there is way more than that. Almost every character I met in the game somehow displays a disturbing behavior. The fraudulent snake, the mass murdering mega-director, some sexually harassing plants, etc. I wonder when it stops being British humor and starts becoming an issue instead. We often associate violent games with abuse – GTA, Mortal Kombat, etc. – but rhetoric is not always related to portrayed gore. It can be hidden behind colorful worlds, smiling characters and a PEGI 3 logo as well.

This said, I am enjoying Playtonic’s first game a lot. It is my first chance to play with a N64 again, and I was starving for this kind of experience, with all its highs and downsides.

Uncharted: a rant’s end

A few days ago I posted a rant about the Uncharted series and how it, imho, is a little overrated due to certain serious issues. But probably “overrated” isn’t even the right word for this…let’s just say that sometimes critics, media and gamers have double standards. Some close an eye, or both, pretending to not see very annoying stuff (like when The Last Guardian was being universally acclaimed, for example), and I fail to tolerate this attitude.

It is implicit in my bad temper to deal in absolutes (like a true Sith Lord), however academia taught me to accept new points of view and change my thoughts when facing new evidence. Long story short, I went through the last chapter of Naughty Dog‘s adventurous saga and completed Uncharted 4 as well. Changing my perspective on the whole topic. A bit.

Let’s jump to the brave statements: I think that Uncharted 4 is great. It represents, more or less, the approach I was dreaming of in my last post. Aside its inner “more of the same” core, it indeed covers a lot of the nonsensical issues seen in the past.

Me, leaping to conclusions

The random armies of enemies are still there, better contextualized in the environment and plausible within the narrative scheme. Gunfights can be kinda avoided by a proper stealth approach, there are no more odd spawnings and the overall experience doesn’t necessarily stall due to shootings. Hitboxes are still an issue, as many among the tougher foes seem scripted to go down only after a defined amount of damage – ok, but when I hit a guy with an RPG missle and he loses his helmet it really rustles my jimmies. Then there’s also that detail of the protagonist being a mass murderer for hypothetical self defense, but I don’t wanna go too deep into thoughts today.

Staying on the surface, I can say  that exploration has a greater impact in the game, thanks to wider areas, better designed levels, etc. Almost all from start to finish tickled my sense of wonder, and not just because the goal this time was about pirates. Probably the recent graphics helped, probably I just submitted myself to a “stronger” suspension of disbelief (pls academia forgive me for I sinned). Dunno why, the whole experience was more intense to me than the sum of the previous three entries.

Also: [SPOILERS] when villains capture the protagonist they actually try to kill him. HALLELUJAH.

Level design, characterization, scripted narrative and gameplay are also the best to date in the series. Especially Neil Druckmann’s story is well implemented in the game and has a very good flow, bringing no real fresh air to the genre, but stimulating emotive responses in the player with great animations, dialogue, and interactions between the characters. As a scriptwriter/narrative designer wannabe, this sets for me an excellent example of “doing things well”.

Oh, and the soundtrack! The sfx’s! The Italian voice acting! I loved the whole audiovisual experience, with an emphasis on the “audio” part of it. What more can I say? “A thief’s end” amazed me in so many ways, and probably it is clear as day if you read my post until now. Unlike the first three chapters it didn’t make me feel as I “had to” progress, I just wanted to. That’s the difference I was talking about in my rant.

So yeah, probably we don’t need more Uncharted (especially like 1, 2 or 3). But I’d look forward to the next Naughty Dog games nevertheless.

They aren’t *that* bad at this gamedev thing.

We need less Uncharted and more The Order 1886

This post will be 99% rant, I won’t even try to deny it.

A friend lent me a copy of Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection. During the last week I tried to play it as a priority in my free time, out of curiosity for a praised and honored saga that emerged as one of the most famous Sony exclusives worldwide. Now, at 82% into the third chapter, I have one or two things to say. And I will do it on the internet, because I’m frustrated and angry.

Let’s start with the good things. There are a lot of them: level design is amazing, characters are well written, narrative is epic. All stuff that Naughty Dog took on a “next level” with The Last of Us imho. However, the excellence that can be found in Uncharted is destroyed by many issues that I truly fail to tolerate.

. <-

First, the nonsense that breaks all the premises: infinite armies of enemies that pop up from nowhere inside ancient tombs, taking routes inaccessible for the protagonist – who has to always struggle with deadly puzzles, while his foes don’t – and being armed like freaking SWAT teams all the time. Just to kill one thief/mercenary/archeologist. With bazookas. Of course. Not to mention that the protagonist is often taken into custody by villains that, for some unspoken reason, do not kill him. So what’s the point of sending an army of trained mercenaries? Duh. All these contradictions are so absurd that the whole scripted story loses credibility, unless the player accepts all the nonsense and goes on. Which is a pre-condition of playing games and watching movies, but to this point it ceases to be tolerable and becomes annoying. Clashing with the narrative premises.

This points to another problem: the hours and hours of countless gunfights, with enemies that spawn behind the character, messy controls, odd hitboxes (missile to the head -> not even a scratch -> ok). I think that those situations are there just to “dilute” the game so that it lasts more than 8 hours per playthrough, because many shootings are completely irrelevant for the narrative (main focus of the game alongside exploration and “sense of wonder” as far as I’m concerned). More importantly, gunfights break the rhythm of gameplay creating stalls and frustrating the player with the above mentioned issues. The result is a boring experience that absorbs all the good stuff seen before.

Then you have 4 (F-O-U-R) iterations of the very same game that feel damn redundant. No need to expand this concept further.

So I asked myself: do we truly need games to be like this? With hours of pointless activities meant just to see “what’s next” and nothing more? Sequels over sequels of the same stuff repeated in order to sell, bringing nothing really interesting to the table (say “hi” to Mass Effect: Andromeda)? If the answers are yes, I think that there’s something broken in the way we approach games nowadays.

For example, I remember The Order 1886 being strongly criticized by media and customers because it was “too short” or “too guided”. While it brought some new balance between scripted narrative and player interaction, adopting at the same time very functional storytelling techniques (similarly to Uncharted, to be honest) from established audiovisual language. Still, that “short” playthrough didn’t have dead moments, or frustrating situations due to messy control systems. Was it “worse” than Naughty Dog’s games just because it lasted less time? I don’t think so. Yet they had very different impact and critical response. Neither I think that Uncharted would have been a worse game without all that shooting nonsense.

On the contrary: it could have been a way cooler experience. And I’m talking as a gamer here, without going too much into the academic stuff on purpose.

I told you it was mostly a rant.

New game? No thanks

After many months of not being able to write a word on this blog, I’m finally being (almost) constant with my entries. Yay! But from great blog posting comes great responsibility (sic.), hence I thought that maybe my posts would deserve less schematic titles. The [Category]: [Title] format is a bit annoying after a while. For me, at least. So let’s try a more common “Who the hell cares” approach with simpler titles, and also (probably) shorter entries.

In the last few weeks I’ve been messing around with a thing called portfolio: I’m building one, in order to show my skillset to potential employers and eventually get a job. Very eventually. It takes time tho. A lot of time. Especially if your skills are mostly writing-related, and you’d like to publish stories/books/novels/stuff. And you also have freelance work with deadlines. In the meantime, each day still lasts only 24hrs. Consequence: the available time window to play games is super-super-short. I’ve been playing Overwatch on PS4 a lot for this reason, 10-15′ minutes per session (if a buddy is online that extends to 30′). Previously, it was Torment: Tides of Numenera but a bug in the last dungeon prevented me to complete it, and I quit. Stardew Valley, but that was mostly for academic interest. Fifa 17, but I get angry every time I play it.

This is just to mention the most recent ones. Yet, there are more titles I have completed in the past that would deserve a second take. Tyranny, Fallout 4, Until Dawn, Alien: Isolation, Dragon Age: Inquisition. Basically, the ones that allow multiple approaches. So many games, so little time. Plus, one would like to read, watch TV shows, movies, go out, do sports, etc. Now, this isn’t just my problem: I’ve noticed the very same issue torment many friends that either have a full time job or are attending University.

This is the market’s fault: games cost less, and they are A WHOLE LOT now. Probably also because there’s more audience than in the past, essentially. More demand = more offer. Just browse Steam to get an idea of how many titles are released everyday. Stuff worth 8-10hrs of play if you are lucky. Potentially endless PGC projects. FPS, RTS, MOBAs where each game lasts from 10′ to 90′. RPGs that allow multiple alterbiographies depending on the player’s approach. Time, time, time.

So I asked myself: is replayability still a value in games? Or is it a problem?

Well said, Dr. Zoidberg!

For me, right now, it’s a huge problem. When it comes to buy a new game (or just to daydream a purchase), replayability in relation to estimated time for completion is on the “CONS” column. Because I really like to try many games, but I tend to commit to something when it’s good for me. Especially with regards to RPGs. I used to complete them many times, especially the Fallout and Dragon Age (Origins is my record – 7 times in a row) series. This is why I’m scared by Nioh, Horizon Zero Dawn, Final Fantasy XV, Mass Effect: Andromeda and some other games I didn’t buy yet. They would be an investment that I cannot afford, in terms of time. Not to mention money (sad face).

From a designer point of view, the issue brings other questions in my mind. Since people could not have time to play a game more than once, would it be better to create a replayable game or a (shorter) remarkable one-time experience? Would it be more fair to the customers who invest money on your game? Better in terms of costs-efficiency of the final product?

For sure it’s a matter worth considering when making a game, imho. People in the future will most likely chose carefully games rather than buying a bunch of titles that they’ll never play (all our Steam libraries say “hi”) once, never mind replay them. Which means less sales I suppose…? Dunno, just thinking out loud here.

Aaand I guess I exaggerated with words this time too.

Let me summarize.

tl;dr – I’m broke and adult life sucks.