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

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.

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.