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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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.