Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Disappointments of 2015

Last time, I talked about my favorite games of the year: A “highlight reel of 2015”, as I called it. Though highlights typically refer to things that stand out in good ways, sometimes that's not the case. Something might certainly stand out, but for the worst possible reasons.
To celebrate these clunkers, I'm going to go through my other “highlight reel”: That of the games that proved to be massive disappointments this year.

The Highlights of 2015

So the year is almost over, and what a year it has been. I remember spending most of my time in 2014 catching up with old games and TV shows that I missed growing up. There are very distinct memories of consistently looking at the new releases in a given month and going “Meh.”
Not this time. If anything, 2015 highlights just how bad 2014 was by being its total opposite. 2014 was marked by disappointment in the current generation, with gamers wondering why they spent $400 (or your nation's equivalent) on a shiny new console. On the other hand, 2015 had a consistent stream of good games.

Listed below are my highlights of this year. Please note that this only contains games that I have personally played. Just because your favorite game didn't make this list does not mean that it's bad. All it means is that, for whatever reason, I never got around to it, or I didn't play it enough to have strong opinions of it. More importantly, I am presenting these in no particular order to avoid those annoying discussions over why one game is higher up on the list than another. (Seriously, I'm using a random number generator to determine the order.)
Having said all that: My highlights for 2015 are:

Sunday, December 13, 2015

#101: The Evolution of Bethesda Leveling Systems

Fallout 4 has been making waves in the gaming community since its release. People have been singing its praises on many fronts, including the town building, crafting, improved character animation, and voice acting. Another area of accolades is in the leveling system. More than just a new and unique way to streamline one the most fundamental RPG mechanics, Fallout 4's character development system represents an evolution in how Bethesda empowers its players.

In order to understand what that means, we must first take a look at its predecessors. Oblivion, being Bethesda’s first open-world RPG with no dice-worlds and fully realized combat, makes a fine starting-point for our purposes. Character progression in Oblivion was unique compared to most other RPGs of the time. When the player creates their character, they select 7 of the game's 21 total skills, which become their major skills. Skills increase as they get used (ex. the Swords skill will go up the more the player uses bladed weapons). After increasing their major skills enough times, the player can level up by sleeping in a bed.
Then, they can choose three stats to increase. Stats, like skills, are measured from 1 to 100, and can increase in increments of +1 to +5. The exact increment depends on how many skills that use the statistic were increased since the last level-up. Swords, as an example, are governed by Strength. By increasing the Swords skill, the player is increasing the amount that Strength will be raised if they choose to increase Strength when they level up.
Now, if you haven't played Oblivion before reading that explanation, that might sound more like legal-ese than the way characters progress in an RPG. There is a very good reason for that. A common complaint about Oblivion, in hindsight, is that this system was overly-complicated. In order to make a decent character, one had to be extremely careful about what skills they trained and when, lest they only get small stat increases. The fact that enemies scale to the player character's level, and that every stat bonus they receive is always +5, gravely exacerbates this problem. Their equipment also grows stronger, to the point where no-name bandits will accost players for 5 gold while wearing highly protective, expertly-crafted armor worth thousands.
On top of that, the enemies dotting the open-world would be replaced by stronger monsters with more powerful skills as the player grew stronger. When starting the game, players are often accosted by wolves and other forest animals. While annoying, these creatures are more of a minor nuisance than anything else. After getting to about level 20 or so, those woodland beasts are exchanged for Minotaurs, which are significantly stronger, faster, and more relentless. Later, even more ruthless Minotaur Lords take their place. As a result, it’s not just that leveling up leaves players with even lower stats than their foes. Those same foes are also being thrown to the wayside so that even more terrifying enemies can litter the field. This problem is so bad that not only are there detailed guides for how to level, but some of them even advocate not leveling up at all as a reasonable solution. After all, unless players are willing to meticulously study and train specific skills in particular orders, leveling up will almost leave them in a worse position.
Despite its problems, Oblivion did serve a purpose. It brought skill-based, real-time to the open-world format, doing away with the invisible dice-rolls of its predecessor Morrowind. The radiant-AI that gave all NPCs set schedules also breathed life to the world (if you ignore the absolutely hideous faces and voice-acting). It wasn’t stellar, but it’s a base. Crucially, it is a base that can be modified and built-upon to create something significantly better.

Using their now-established open-world format, they were going to bring Fallout to modern audiences with Fallout 3. With a new property comes new progression systems. Though similar to Oblivion, Fallout 3 had a more standard leveling system. Like Bethesda's previous game, characters’ abilities were quantified by a combination of individual stats and skills. However, instead of building up their stats as they developed, players chose them at the start of the game, and mostly stuck with them. As they adventured, their character would gain experience and eventually level up. Of course, that is when the player spent points to increase their skills. More importantly, they selected a perk. Though skills go a long way towards determining what one can do, they are only half of the equation. The perks also go a long way in effectively defining a Fallout 3 character. Each one comes with a powerful benefit, from increased stats or skills to stronger critical hits and even new dialogue options to take advantage of. These passive benefits, combined with skills and stats, give a holistic, yet easy to comprehend, view of a character’s abilities.
There were obvious advantages that the Fallout 3 system had over Oblivion's. Firstly, it eliminated the need for meta-gaming that came from Oblivion. Stats were basically determined at the very start of the game, and there was no need to train skills individually since the player can allocate skill points at level up. This meant that players didn't feel pressure to modify their playstyle in order to stay ahead of the enemies. Maximizing a character's performance by researching and planning a build was purely optional, instead of being damn-near required to keep up.
More importantly, this simplified the process of character development when compared to Oblivion. Players gain experience, level up, then acquire skill points and a perk before beginning the process all over again. Though one might expect that adding the variables of perks and perk requirements would further complicated the system, the fact the progression is so transparent and plain compared to Oblivion makes it easier to understand what is going on. By glancing at any given character's skills and perks, it is simple to intuit what kind of character they are, and how they are likely to develop in the future.
The problem of enemies scaling out of control was also corrected in two ways. First, all characters use the same number of stat points, which are by and large locked in from the very beginning of the game. Furthermore, the number of skill points both players and enemies acquire on level up are based on the Intelligence stat, and nothing else. In this way, the enemies’ skills increase at roughly the same rate as the player’s skills, give or take a few points difference in Intelligence. Given that players are often continually augmenting themselves with new perks and equipment, this gives a total net benefit when leveling up, even if they don’t choose an “optimal” build.
The other, less obvious measure Bethesda took when level-scaling is to control how it occurs in the game world. In general, the world scales with the player as one would expect. As the player grows stronger, so too do enemies through the wasteland. This changes slightly when new locations are discovered. By finding a new place to explore, the enemies in and around that area get locked to whatever level the player was at the time.
Immediately after leaving the vault, many players, for a number of reasons, don’t follow the road to Megaton and instead head to the nearby Springvale School. As a “dungeon”, for lack of a better term, Springvale is filled with raiders. By finding it this early on, players will lock the enemies there to level 2 or 3. At this point, a large subset of these players will realize their mistake and run away. After completing quests and getting a little stronger, to around level 5 or so, they may desire to go back to Springvale to extract bloody revenge on the raiders that previously humiliated them. Although the world has scaled to level 5 in the meantime, to match the player, Springvale has not. It was previously locked to level 2, where it remains.
In Oblivion, players could level up a similar way that the above player could in Fallout 3. However, if they did, and returned to a dungeon this same way, they would likely find that it grew harder due to a combination of the level-scaling and enemies acquiring stronger gear. By locking-in a location’s level when it’s discovered, Fallout 3 makes it possible for a player to realize they are outnumbered and out-gunned, then take steps to get stronger and try again, that they may succeed where they once failed. This system worked so well that Skyrim and Fallout 4 would continue to use it in the future.
Bethesda learned their lesson when developing Fallout 3. By building off the foundation of Oblivion, working in some of the design principles of early Fallout games, and mixing in their own observations from the reception of Oblivion, they unknowingly began to embark on a journey of streamlining a simplifying RPG mechanics.

Later, when they returned to their iconic Elder Scrolls series with Skyrim, they continued this journey by overhauling the way characters developed in Oblivion. Players still need to use a skill in order to increase it. However, these skills are no longer governed by stats. In fact, stats aside from Health, Mana, and Stamina are gone. Whenever the player improves one of their skills, they gain experience which goes toward leveling up. Advancing a level allows the player to increase Health, Mana, or Stamina and gain a point which can be spent on a perk.
Yes. Inspired by their experience developing Fallout 3, Bethesda added perks to Skyrim. Attached to each skill is a perk tree, which lists each perk that falls under that skill, and the prerequisite perks and the minimum skill requirements to take the next rank in each one. Each individual perk costs a single point. Players can purchase any perk that they meet the preconditions for, but may also choose to save up their perk points if there is nothing they wish to acquire.
This is important, because it solves a problem that cropped up in Fallout 3. When the player goes up in level in Fallout 3, players are forced to take the skill increases and perk immediately. Occasionally, players in Fallout 3 find that they do not want any of the perks available to them. However, they are still forced to choose one of them to apply to their character. Since skills are trained with repeated use in Skyrim, the odds of this happening are significantly greater. By allowing players to stock up perk points, this problem is deftly avoided.
Yet despite how simple the system is, there was a noticeable drawback. Skills that had no perks invested into their skill trees were practically useless, no matter how much they were trained. I very clearly remember a character that I had played in Skyrim that bests demonstrates this point. By utilizing an exploit, I was able to quickly raise each of his skills to 100. However, I had chosen to focus his perks in Stealth, One-Handed, and Illusion above all else. When I tried to use Destruction magic, despite having a skill rating of 100, the effects of those spells were so minimal, and their Mana costs so high, I might as well have been meekly shoving my enemies for all the damage I was doing. This is because I had not invested in Destruction perks which increase damage and decrease Mana costs. Though the skill ratings did have a slight effect, they were absolutely worthless without perks.
But that on its own isn’t the problem. When I tried using Destruction-magic with that character, it was really more of an experiment, to see how well my supposed “master-wizard” could actually cast without perks. The problem here is that this system asks, especially later in the game, for players to use skills that they wouldn’t otherwise want to use, in order to acquire points to spend on perks in skills they do want to use. I didn’t raise my characters stats to 100 in order to become a god in a mortal vessel. I did it so that I could get the perk points needed to be a better dagger-wielding, illusionist thief. Without the perks afforded by raising these skills, and thus my character’s level, it’s harder to justify taking perks that aren’t core to my character, but are otherwise useful, like Smithing and Enchanting. Investing in them would eat away at perks I can use on my most useful skills.

This might explain the approach taken in Fallout 4. Like Skyrim before it, Fallout 4 attempts to simplify and streamline the leveling process. Rather than go the same direction Skyrim took, Fallout 4 used a different technique more suited to the trappings of the franchise. Instead of removing stats and using skills/perks to determine what a character can do, Fallout 4 opted to remove skills, and use only stats and perks.
At the start of the game, the player is given a set total of points that they can apply to their 7 base stats. These stats determine how much health the player has, their maximum carry weight, their ability to make critical hits, etc, as they did in Fallout 3. Experience, as is also the case in the previous Fallout, is earned by exploring the world and doing what comes naturally. And, as Skyrim players would be familiar with, a point is gained on level up. This point can be spent in several ways: The player can choose to take a new perk or advance a rank in one they already have (assuming the meet the requirements) OR increase one of their base stats by a single point.
Perks also function somewhat differently to accommodate this new system. Each perk corresponds to a prerequisite rank in one of the base stats, without which one cannot take them. Strong Back, as an example, is a perk which raises the player's maximum carry weight. It is the Rank 5 Strength perk, and cannot be taken unless the character in question already has 5 points in Strength. Every perk also has multiple ranks, which provide even bigger bonuses, and these are gated off by the current level of the player character. Rank 2 of Strong Back, to continue our example, increases the benefit of Rank 1 and can only to taken once the player is level 10 or higher.
Even more than in Skyrim, this means that any given player's build is closely tied to what perks they have. By looking at what perks one has taken, it is easy to tell what kind of playstyle they have and/or are going for. The character I played has 5 Ranks each in Rifleman and Sneak, along with 3 Ranks in Sniper, Better Criticals, and Grim Reaper's Sprint and 2 Ranks in Action Boy and Ninja. Someone who has never played Fallout 4 has no idea what any of this means. To one who has played Fallout 4, and even to some who have only placed Fallout 3 or New Vegas, this tells them that I like to abuse VATS to get tons of Sneak Attacks and Critical Hits from a distance using scoped, non-automatic rifles. It also gives a rough idea of what stats I'd need to have in order to acquire all of these perks, since each one has a minimum requirement.
It also solves the problem that Skyrim had where skills and perks weren’t always in alignment. Since skills don’t exist, the “master-wizard” problem I outlined earlier from Skyrim is no longer an issue. As a result, the player character’s abilities are more accurately reflected by their stats and perk ratings than their skills in Skyrim. Perks are also dependent on having a minimum stat rating before they can be taken, increasing the likelihood that stats will correlate with the perks acquired. This all results in a cohesiveness of character absent from the higher-level Skyrim characters.
But despite that, there is still some noticeable room for improvement. Even if the concept behind the perk trees is extremely simple, Bethesda didn't give much in the way of tutorial for how to use it. If one didn't follow the pre-release materials that explained how these systems worked, as I had, they could easily be forgiven for not understanding the system. By looking at the in-game perk chart, it is easy to see why so many assume that they need to get a given stat's perks in order, from top to bottom. The chart makes it seem like such linear progression is necessary. Because of this, it's possible to put points in perks one does not want or need not knowing that they can easily bypass them to get the perks they want if they have high enough stats. The combination of the graphic designer and the lack of tutorials conspire against the player.
The another primary issue is that leveling-up doesn’t feel as meaningful as it did in previous Bethesda games. The only thing players gain at level-up is the perk point, and a few extra hit points. To compensate for this small reward, level-ups are much more frequent than in previous games.
In Fallout 3 and Skyrim, leveling up felt like a special event. After enduring many tough trials, Fallout 3 characters were rewarded with the chance to strengthen their skills and obtain a unique bonus for themselves. And although Skryim also gave only a perk point and some bonus health/mana/stamina on level-up, the skill training required to grow stronger was a reward itself. Not only were the rewards more substantial, but they came infrequently that the player could eagerly look forward to the next time they built up enough experience to see that screen just one more time. Perks, and thus levels, have to arrive at increasingly frequency in Fallout 4, depriving players of their dopamine fix.

Fallout 4's level system isn't perfect, but it is another step in a long journey that Bethesda started in 2006 with Oblivion. For better or worse, Bethesda has been focusing on refining and streamlining the mechanics in their games, the leveling system being only one prominent example. Even if there are some flaws, one must appreciate the desire to experiment and improve these systems. Once people have had enough time to properly digest Fallout 4, I have no doubt that we will discover flaws that have been otherwise overlooked at the time of writing. It will be interesting to see what Bethesda does in response to these criticisms, and which direction they’ll along this road to refining their mechanics.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

#100: Burgers and Fryes: The Protagonists of Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Long-time readers of my blog know that I routinely talk about Assassin's Creed games. Whenever a new one gets released, it rises to the top of my to-play list. And for good reason. Regardless of the quality of any one installment, each entry has something, a feature or a flaw, worth discussing. The latest game in Ubisoft's long-running alternate history franchise is no different.
Unlike past games, Syndicate features two lead characters, twins named Jacob and Evie Frye, who take London by storm. This use of two protagonists allows Assassin's Creed: Syndicate to do a number of interesting things with both its play and its plot. The most obvious being that it allowed Ubisoft to contrast and cater to the two major playstyles that players can generally be sorted into when playing Assassin's Creed.

As the more athletic of the two, Jacob loves a good brawl. He's more than content with attracting the attention of large groups of enemies and beating his targets, and anyone who looks like they might try to stop him, into a bloody pavement pulp. If ranged combat is needed, Jacob will just bring out a pistol and go in loud. Meanwhile, his sister takes a more silent approach. Though she can handle herself in a fight, Evie prefers to sneak around undetected. She isolates enemies and takes them out one-at-a-time, being careful not to attract too much detention. Rather than rely too heavily on her gun, she takes wields throwing knives that can kill ranged enemies quietly. While either character technically can perform in combat or stealth, they have clear preferences towards one or the other.
This neatly maps to the two common Assassin’s Creed player archetypes. Some people are just fine with rushing to a mission objective, killing everyone in sight, and completing their assigned task. Stealth or finesse isn't important. What matters is only that the mission is done at the end of the day. Others would willing redo the same mission over and over until they've “perfected” it by completing all the optional objectives and avoiding detection. It's not just about completing the mission. It's about keeping mistakes to an absolute minimum. Though these descriptions are more representatives of extremes on a sliding scale, and less hard-and-fast alternatives, it can be broadly said that most will gravitate towards one or the other.
By having Jacob and Evie together, both extremes can be catered to and defended in the game. Even in the story, both characters represent these playstyles through their conversations. Being the more detail-oriented of the two, Evie constantly admonishes her brother by pointing out the sloppiness of his work and the unexpected consequences of his actions, especially in comparison to how she carries out her assignments. But Jacob gets just as much opportunity to defend himself by pointing out that he gets things done, often faster and more efficiently than his sister. The game doesn't preach in favor of one style or the other. Rather, through these contrasting characters, it acknowledges that both extremes, and everything in between, are valid ways of doing what needs doing.

As a pair, the Frye twins also allowed Assassin's Creed: Syndicate to explore the same story through multiple viewpoints. Because he tends to be the go-getter of the two twins, Jacob performs most of the tasks often associated with a typical Assassin's Creed protagonist. He’s the one who goes after most the high-ranking Templars, by discovering who they are, sabotaging their operations, and ultimately assassinating them. In many ways, his missions offer the “typical” Assassin's Creed experience. While Evie gets in on the action with her own separate story-missions, Jacob takes the lion's share of these assassinations.
This frees Evie up to do something fairly unique in the context of the series. Usually, after the mission in which the main character kills one of the Templars, that target's influence on the world is suddenly rendered null and void. They no longer matter, and we can safely move on to the next target without exploring the potential effects of their removal. In Syndicate, in the next sequence following an assassination, Evie gets a moment where she revisits the scene of Jacob's crime, exploring the aftermath.
One early sequence has Jacob target a corrupt doctor who was brewing and distributing an hazardous and addictive “tonic” to the people of Victorian-era London. When Evie enters the situation later, she agrees that killing him and cutting off the supply of tonic is a good thing. However, Jacob failed to note that doing so only solves part of the problem, and creates others. This doctor wasn’t only responsible for the distribution of the tonic, but also for providing other, beneficial medicine needed by the poorer citizens. By removing him, Jacob has inadvertently made it possible for gangs to swoop in and take over both the distribution of medicine and the creation of tonic for people those still addicted. Though Evie does what she can to help in this mission, it is ultimately up to other characters, who aren't involved in the Assassin/Templar meta-narrative, to start setting up the infrastructure needed to truly solve the problem.
Through these post-assassination missions, Ubisoft appears to launch a subtle critique of their very own stock storyline. In almost every other Assassin's Creed game, assassinating every major Templar magically fixes every problem. By using Jacob and Evie to explore these assassinations from different perspectives (one before and during the kill, and the other afterwards) Syndicate posits that the actual kill is only the start of fixing the problem at best, and at worst makes it harder to come to a permanent solution. It's not enough to take down the existing economic and logistical frameworks without taking steps to replace them afterward. Otherwise, the situation can only get worse. Without Evie, it would be much more difficult to make this point in an elegant manner.

On their own merits, neither Jacob nor Evie would be particularly interesting characters. What makes them worth noting is what they allow Ubisoft to do in the context of an Assassin's Creed game. By throwing together two characters with different personalities, and making them work towards the same ends, there styles forced to clash with each other. Using their interactions, Assassin's Creed: Syndicate explores some of the franchises central gameplay and story tenets with an uncharacteristic self-analysis. Hopefully, with this insight, the series can continue to improve itself.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

#99: When Will You Stop Playing Undertale?

(Spoiler Alert: This article discusses important plot points and twists in Undertale.)
I've begun to notice a new trend in video games, especially in RPGs. The current generation of game designers grew up on the games that built the genre, like Final Fantasy and Ultima. When they entered the industry, they took with them an appreciation and understanding of the tropes created and used by these RPGs. Manifesting itself within their works, this understanding allows them to make games that are more self-aware. Some games are content to just lampshade and acknowledge those very tropes, laughing them off as an in-joke between the designers and the players. Others exist to show the potential implications behind them; to demonstrate the potential horrors of a world where those tropes we take for granted in games are reality. Undertale is one such game, and it has a damning, if not subtle, message to deliver to its player base.

Created by Toby Fox, Undertale is an RPG, inspired by the likes of Earthbound. What separates it from other small-budget, independently-developed RPGs is that it bills itself as a “friendly” game. Though the player encounters random enemies while exploring, they never have to kill any one of them. This isn't necessary new, as Shin Megami Tensei has frequently allowed players to converse with and recruit demons. However, Undertale takes this basic concept to a logical extreme. Every enemy, even the bosses, can be dealt with without dealing a lethal blow. This is the way in which Undertale helps set the stage for its moral lessons.

In most RPGs, players fight and kill hundreds, if not thousands, of creatures over the course of the game, with little regard for their lives. To the players, and to the protagonists, they are nothing more than speed bumps in the road to their objective. Undertale asks what kind of person is this protagonist, and what kind of effect would that person have on those around him. If the player chooses to murder every enemy they encounter, they'll begin to see the effects quickly. Towns and areas will become depopulated, devoid of life. Shopkeepers will abandon their stores and their stock before the protagonist arrives in an effort to escape the carnage with their lives intact. City guards and brave heroes will attempt to stop them in their tracks.
In other words, the player who murders every enemy they encounter, who acts like any other RPG protagonist, is a complete genocidal-maniac. To rack up such a high kill count and slaughter so many, they would have to be. By implication, Undertale is saying that this would be true of the lead protagonists of most RPGs and the company those “heroes” keep. Simply by adventuring and fighting against all these creatures, they are complicit in mass homicide. Even if the opponents aren't sapient, the kind of damage that would ensue on the ecosystem would make life nearly unsustainable. Undertale claims that although we see them as heroes from our viewpoint, the damage they do would only make a bad situation worse. As players, we take for granted that we are in the right, or at least trying to do good. Undertale questions the wisdom of saying that we are morally correct just because we are playing as the protagonist.

But that is not the only RPG mechanic Undertale challenges by exploring its implications. The idea of replaying games with multiple endings, and seeing “all that a game has to offer” also comes into close scrutiny. At any point before beating the game, the player is allowed to start over from the beginning. However, characters in the story will remember and comment on what choices they made in their previous playthrough. Most will discover this in the same way I did. The first boss in the game is your maternal figure, Toriel, who guides you and protects you at the start. In my first run, I had not realized that the trick to saving her is to constantly use the Spare option until she gives up, and my ignorance killed her. Regretting my actions, I consulted the wiki and learned how to keep her from dying. I reset my playthrough and used the non-lethal method to win the boss fight. Immediately afterward, the next character I spoke to mocked me for “growing a conscience” and redoing that section of the game to spare her. For going back to see the alternate outcome, I was chastised by the very game I was playing.
Continuing along this theme, should the player get the Pacifist ending, for never killing a single thing and completing all the prerequisite side content, they are given the option to perform a True Reset, essentially erasing not only the current save, but any record that previous runs ever occurred, returning the game to a factory-standard. When the player launches the game after unlocking this option, one character appears on screen begging them not to use it. By doing so, they claim that the player would be erasing the happy endings that the cast had earned throughout the game, a fate more cruel than anything else that could happen to them.
In the Genocide run of the game, the player has a conversation with the only other major villain aside from themselves. During this discussion, this person praises the player for their willingness to give in to their murderous instincts and show no mercy. Then, something strange happens. He begins to talk about the people who “want to go through with this, but don't have the guts to do it themselves.” Taunting them, he claims that there are “Probably watching a video of this right now.” (A fact that I learned, fittingly enough, by watching someone else's Let's Play of a Genocide run.)
All of this boils down to Undertale's one, overarching message: Even though the content exists in the game's files, it isn’t something the audience necessarily needs to see. The game is blatant in the way that it encourages its players to save everyone and avoiding making even a single kill. That said, the option to ignore its warnings and embark on a bloody campaign exists. It's there, but it is something that players absolutely have to experience this content? Do they have to sacrifice the good times they had with the friends they made along the way in the service of seeing every bit of content on offer? Are all those lives the player took worth the Genocide ending? And if they aren't, is it even worth the time it takes to look up a YouTube video showing the differences? Undertale ponders these questions and answers with a definitive “no”. All these choices exist, but in reality the game considers the first playthrough to be the only thing worth the player’s time. Anything else being needless fluff padding out your time with it.

Though Undertale lacks a subtlety regarding the way it challenges these tropes used in the vast majority of RPG game design, there is no denying that is does challenge them. Lately, there have been more and more games that deconstruct and analyze their own medium. Given that the generation that grew up on gaming has finally matured to the point where it can enter the industry proper, I expect to see more of these deconstructions as time goes on. Like Undertale, their creators have something to say about the games they played growing up, and now they have the means and opportunity to express those thoughts.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

#98: The Virtue of Virtual Tabletops

As a child, I spent a lot of time playing tabletop games with family and friends. From the nearly universally reviled, yet still somehow popular Monopoly, to the card games like Yu-Gi-Oh, hours of my time were spent over a kitchen table. With the passage of time, however, things have changed. For many reason, I am no longer able to play these types of games as much as I want to. And like with most of my problems, I turned to the digital world for a solution.

Over the years, I've played a lot of “virtual tabletop games” as a substitute. Despite being extremely similar, they are unique compared to their low-tech brethren in quite a few ways. The most obvious of the differences is the ability to play online, on virtual tabletops. As we aged, the friends that I used to play games with grew apart. On top of that, many of those I am acquainted with today live in separate parts of the country, or even the world. Getting together in the same room to play with any of these guys is wildly impractical. However, it is possible to hang out virtually. Whether it's a large group playing an RPG-campaign through Roll20, a small gathering in a game of Armello, or just a friend and I on Dueling Network playing a children's card game, the physical distance that prevented in-person gaming has stopped being a concern. We can just get online, put a game on, and get on Skype, and we’re in for a pleasant evening together.

Of course, even if my friends were closer and more able to get together, I could still see us using virtual tabletop games in lieu of physical games for the aid of the computer. One thing I notice, especially in tabletop RPGs, is that there are a lot of numbers, calculations, and other tedious aspects that can be difficult to keep track of. Depending on the game and the players, this can detract from the experience. Moving into the virtual space allows for much of this to be automated. With a computer keeping track of health, damage, resources, and equipment, I found it a lot easier to focus on the interactions and role-playing when my friends got together or an RPG session over Roll20. This made it much easier to just play the game and enjoy the time we all spent together.

When tabletop games are brought into the virtual world, they can even make use of mechanics that would be completely impossible in meatspace. One of the most classic examples of this is the so-called “Fog of War” used in the X-Com games. If X-Com was a board game in real life, the player would have be able to see every single character and item on the field. However, because X-Com is a video game, it is able to conceal those elements. Every soldier the player commands has a range of sight, representing their visual range. The player can only see enemies and objects that are inside that radius. Everything else is hidden under the “Fog of War”. Armello also uses a variant of this mechanic to hide by allowing characters to be granted “Stealth”, making them invisible to other players under specific conditions. This type of obfuscation is just one example of what can be accomplished easily in the virtually, yet highly impractically when brought into the reality.

Even though it's become wildly impractical for me to play the tabletop games I used to love as a child, the video games that bring them into the digital space have helped to fill that void. And in many cases, their virtual nature allows them to surpass their origins. There are still practical concerns that can't be avoided no matter how one plays, like arranging a time period to play with friends who all lead busy lives with hectic schedules. Still, playing virtual tabletops instead of actual tabletops reduces the barrier of entry into something more manageable when arranging play sessions with my friends.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Interactive Friction: Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;birth 1

In case you weren't aware, Sam really enjoys anime. Though I joke about anime a lot, I don't have any particular like or hate of it. Sam's friend Taylor, who I've spoken to a few times, is also an avid anime fan. So what happens when you take their love of anime and combine it with our collective exhaustion after the Watch_Dogs season...


I don't have much to say on the actual game aside from what was said in the episode. This isn't a bad game for someone who absolutely loves any and every JRPG and/or anime, but no one else really needs to bother. And though it has a great premise as a parody of the game industry, it doesn't do enough with it to keep my interest.

The more important takeaway from this episode was that our new set-up works. Unlike previous episodes, Sam recorded the gameplay footage before we recorded. This eliminates the lag on my reactions that you probably noticed on the three seasons thus far. We also all recorded our own audio separate, to give Sam more freedom in the editing booth. On top of that, I purchased a studio-quality microphone to use in recording.

I think the final result speaks for itself. All the changes seem to be for the better. We'll probably keep this up until we think of an even better setup...

....but with less anime.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 23: Season *Finally*!

And so it ends. This is the final mission of the game, and it's one of the dumbest things I've seen. In a different context, this ending could be fine. If we were slowly building to an antagonist that had all of your Ct_OS hacks, and was fighting you with them on equal footing, this could be a good finale. However, aside from Defalt, we don't really discuss that as a possibility.

I suppose that the game needed to tie-up the loose ends of Damien, Ded-Sec, and T-Bone, but to come to this after having such a good scene with Lucky Quinn earlier is just heartbreaking. It's even more crushing since these groups and characters were never really important in the context of our revenge story. The real meat of the story rests between Aiden Pearce, Clara, and Lucky Quinn. This mission just highlights how unimportant the rest of the cast was.

I'm really glad that despite all of the criticisms, all of the filler and the bat-shit bonkers ending, we were still able to end this series on a relatively high note. At some point, even I got sick of listening to myself complain about this game. One thing Ubisoft seems to be pretty good at is responding to criticisms and correcting course in future entries of a given franchise. I'd love to see what they did if they were given a clean slate to start over with the central Ct_OS premise. It's a great hook, with tons of excellent gameplay opportunities. Watch_Dogs might not have done it justice, but I still see potential here.

Even though Watch_Dogs has expended both Sam's stamina and my own, this is not the end of Interactive Friction. Far from it. We'll be taking a hiatus for a still as-of-yet undetermined period of time, but we will be back. The two of us have even already decided on our next season. There is even the possibility of having a few one-off episodes here and there until we get our mojo back.

So, until next time, cheers!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 22: The Uncanny Valley Of Evil

The scene between Aiden Pearce and Lucky Quinn is by far the best scene in the game, aside from those between Aiden and Jordy. There's a fair degree of subtext and subtlety in their back-and-forth that it's surprising that the same people who created this scene also made the parts with Bedbug, Iraq, the prostitutes, and every other section of the story.

This is also the one of the few kills where Aiden Pearce may not necessarily be in the wrong. Even if you discount the revenge motivation here (and we have), it's clear that Chicago would be an objectively better, less awful city should Lucky Quinn and his Chicago South Club fall.
At the same time, one could make an argument that killing anymore is morally wrong, no matter how evil that person may be. It may not make Aiden Pearce out to be the paragon of justice, at least an argument could be made that it's morally acceptable to kill Quinn.

We have a couple of problems with it in the episode, but that's less a problem with the scene and more an issue with the context that it was provided in. If the writing is this game was a little tighter, and there was less filler, this would've been a fantastic payoff.

This also happens to be the part where the game finally makes the decision to say something. Even if it's a simple "Information is power" message, that's more than the rest of the game has been willing to give. Exploring how much someone can do if they know all of your dark little secrets, if they can expose you at the blink of a button: That's some very interesting stuff. On top of that, it ties back into the central premise nicely.

If the game ended at that point, I would've considered it a pretty strong finish to a pretty weak game. Unfortunately, we're not done yet. Rather than use this point to wrap things up, we still need to deal with Damien. Even worse, we deal in this dumbest way possible.

And that makes me sad.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

#97: Game Invaders: Dark Souls vs. Watch_Dogs

As many of you know, I have been working on a Let's Play series with my friend, Sam Callahan. Together, we have been trudging through Watch_Dogs. One of the more heavily advertised features in Watch_Dogs was the ability for players to invade the game of another in order to sabotage them. Fans of the Dark Souls games might recognize this feature, since it also uses player invasion as a game mechanic. Having played both Watch_Dogs and Dark Souls, I realized that I was extremely annoyed by the invasions in Watch_Dogs. On the other hand, that same general idea worked for me in Dark Souls, adding to the game. This is when I began to ponder why this might be the case.

One of the fundamental reasons why player invasions irritated me in Watch_Dogs was that they were almost divorced from the rest of the game. As a player wanders about the city of Chicago, outside of a mission or side-activity, another player may choose to enter their game at any time. Until the outsider is either dealt with or succeeds in their mission to hack the host player, the host is unable to continue the main story or do any side-quests. Even if the host dies while being invaded, the event continues uninterrupted and the invader is able to continue with their objective. In other words, to someone who is looking to complete the game's story and/or side missions, an invasion is just a needless distraction, rather than a core part of the game. They have to put their game on hold in order to deal with this new problem. Sam and I encountered this ourselves a few times in our Let's Play. Though we eventually remember that we could turn off player invasions, that further speaks to how separate they are from everything else. With invasions turned off, the game is improved because players can get to the rest of the content without wasting time killing an invader.
This is in stark contrast to Dark Souls, where the invasions are more nicely integrated into the whole experience. Normally, players won't be in danger of invasions. However, in order to invite other people to join their game and help them take down many of the game's bosses, they also have to spend a Humanity point and open themselves up to invasions in exchange. Invasions aren't so much a dedicated feature as much as they are a necessary drawback in order to balance out the act of asking for help. Even if the player is offline, there are NPCs in the world that can take the place of both co-op companions and invaders. In other words, this feature is so core to the game's fundamental design that From Software saw fit to include an NPC equivalent for those who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not play online. Opening oneself up to the aid of others will in turn open up the possibility that others will attack.
The difference between allowing oneself to be invaded in Dark Souls and the incidental invasion in Watch_Dogs is a very important one. Whenever I was invaded in Watch_Dogs, it was almost always at an inopportune time. Often, I would be about to accept a story mission, when the game informed me that someone had stepped into my play session, locking me out of the mission. It was an irritation that I had no interest in and gained nothing from. While an invasion in Dark Souls can be inconvenient, players must make a deliberate choice to spend Humanity and make them possible. This opting-in subtly prepares the player for the potential threat, which means they aren't surprised if and when it happens. In Watch_Dogs, player invasions are always surprising because they can happen at anytime. As a result, they will always mess up the player's plan and cause undue irritation.

Not only are the invasions in Watch_Dogs separate from the other gameplay elements, but they are also removed from the normal character progression. As players complete missions in Watch_Dogs, they acquire skill points which can be spent on skills in the various categories, like Hacking, Driving, and Combat. There is also another category called "Notoriety". Unlike the other skill trees, players can't use skill points to advance it. Instead, they accumulate "Notoriety" through strong performances in the various online multiplayer activities, including the invasions. Out of the 6 available skills in this tree, only two could be considered useful to players who don't play with others. The other 4 skills only affect elements of the online component, by raising the rewards or making it easier to detect an invading player. To put it plainly, almost nothing the player unlocks in the online mode affects them in the main story.
Dark Souls works differently. In order to gain Humanity points, players can enter another's game and help them defeat an area boss. Even if they fail in the attempt, they can still keep the Souls that they earned while in working with the host. Alternatively, the enter invade another player's game, gaining Humanity and souls by killing the host. Since they do not lose Souls in the attempt, they are incentivized to take advantage of this ability to gain Humanity. In turn, this Humanity can be spend to allow other players to join their game and hopefully gain an advantage in fighting many of the game's bosses. Both the aid of other players and the Souls obtained in these multiplayer events have a direct, positive influence on one's progression in the game.
Again, observe the difference between these two games. To the player who is only looking to complete the main story of the game, the invasions in Watch_Dogs are a waste of time. If they perform well, the rewards they provide won't help them in their ultimate goal, designed only to be used in online challenges. Dark Souls goes in a different direction. Even if a player only wants to beat the game, there is still a strong incentive to partake in the online invasions, or at least make oneself open to them. The aid of cooperative partners can greatly increase one's odds of successfully defeating a boss. Furthermore, there is a chance to earn more Souls and Humanity, which are used to further tip the odds in their favor. As someone who rarely participates in a game's online component, I still found myself making use of it in my journey through Lordran.

When Watch_Dogs was in development, Ubisoft said that while players could disable the option for others to invade their game, they considered leaving them on to be the "best" way to play. Unfortunately, the facts aren't in their favor. Without a way to prepare for them, or a strong reason to keep them enabled in the first place, it makes more sense for players to not even bother. As Dark Souls demonstrates, it didn't have to be this way. As rudimentary as they are, if Ubisoft had been a little smarter about the implementation, they could have been a seamlessly integrated and enjoyable aspect of the final product.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 21: Family Ties

This is the point where all of the many criticisms we've be directed at Watch_Dogs that to coalesce. Like the game, we start to tie up all of our loose-ends as we head towards the final stretch.

It's amazing that even after forcing his family to evacuate the city, because his revenge has made them into massive targets, Ubisoft still doesn't acknowledge how awful Aiden Pearce is as a person. That's really all I needed. All Ubisoft had to do was show that they were aware of the monster they had created.

I have to applaud Nikki in this scene. As Sam said, she's a saint for not blowing up at what happened in her life. She did nothing that would justify the need to be evacuated from an otherwise normal city. If Aiden Pearce has just stopped, like Nikki pleaded for him to do, she could just sit back in her house and deal with normal-people problems.

That tragedy is caused by our hero, ladies and gentleman. Enjoy.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 20: Where in the World in Joseph DeMarco?

It's interesting to compare the mission in the club here versus what they showed off at the original E3 reveal.

I can see what they were going for in the E3 reveal trailer, even watching it back now. There's this very clear sense of progression from the club infiltration, to baiting a staffer into calling the boss, to sending a message by killing the owner, making sure to save civilians along the way.

It's obvious that at some point the script was rewritten and Joseph DeMarco was no longer an important character. There's nothing wrong with that. However, this mission makes it seem like Defalt only exists so that we can make use of this club in the final game. His first mention is in Act 3, where he is mentioned in passing. He presents himself as an obstacle at the end of Act 3, but we then defeat him very early into Act 4. Defalt exits the story about as quickly as he entered it.

I get the feeling that this game suffered the Uncharted 3 problem. They had developed all of the missions and level layouts first, and then wrote the story around those missions. It's the only way I can explain all of the filler we see in the middle of the game. It's why I almost forgot about the revenge story halfway through when I first played Watch_Dogs.

I dislike filler, and I dislike how it really hurt this game.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 19: That's So Watch_Dogs

I really can't stress enough how absolutely silly it is for Damien to out Aiden Pearce as The Vigilante at the beginning of the episode. There are two big reasons for this:

1.) Aiden Pearce's identity as The Vigilante is public knowledge.
As we've seen repeatedly over the course of this Let's Play, countless news reports have referred to Aiden Pearce by name when speaking of The Vigilante. I would guess that one draft of the script had it where nobody except for his closest allies knew who we was. However, this is no longer the case. Even discounting the incidental, background radio and news reports as not part of the story, T-Bone knows who Aiden Pearce because of the news reports, which is why he didn't trust Pearce at first. When Damien tells the world who The Vigilante is, the world should shrug with indifference, because they already had a face and a name.

2.) Damien has no reason to oust Aiden Pearce.
As Aiden Pearce correctly deduced, Damien's deal with Blume means that he's reliant of Pearce to give him the data. Otherwise, he's royally screwed out of the CTOS hacks, and could possibly get a hit taken out on him. If Aiden got arrested because of what Damien did, Damien would be in arguably a worse position than Aiden Pearce. Aiden Pearce will eventually break out of jail, and Damien will have several people coming after him from all sides.
Even if Damien doesn't like Aiden Pearce (and to be fair, who would?), he'd still need him out and about in order to stay afloat.

Next time, I get to complain about Defalt.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 18: Inaccuracies

We've gotten to the point where neither Sam nor I care about this game anymore. As a result, we paid less and less attention to the story. You can probably spot some of the times when that happened, like our surprise at the electronic door, despite T-Bone literally just saying that he was hacking in for that express reason. I'll own up to the fact that parts of this episode were phoned in, but I'd argue that it's the game's fault for wearing us down so heavily.

I want to point out that we really didn't need to storm Iraq's compound. It wasn't important to our objective. When we made our first hack, Carla and Aiden were already able to figure out that it was blackmail data (despite not being able to read it because it's encrypted). From there, it would have simple to deduce that the hacker, likely Iraq, was after blackmail information. Then, we could have skipped most of the game and gotten that much closer to the true culprit behind the accidental death of Aiden Pearce's niece.

Next week, this game shows that it is not done with the filler content. You've only gotten a short glimpse of the irritation that is "Defalt". There's not much left of the game at this point, which Sam and I are both pretty happy about.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 17: Choo-Choo Fuck

Apparently I was wrong again. Forensic Technologist is an actual title.

This episode just makes me wonder what the hell Damien's deal is. They never explain what his motivation is for wanting the CTOS hacks. It seems like he's only doing it because he's one of the designated villains of the story. In that sense, he's almost like a cartoon character.

Despite his leg injury, and his inability to be reasonable in any circumstance, he's appears to be pretty successful given steady employment with a great salary. By all accounts he's doing alright. That's not to say that I don't understand why he's going after the second hacker: He wants revenge over his broken leg. That's basically what Aiden Pearce is doing, so it's par for the course.

But they didn't really establish why he desires the CTOS access. He's a good hacker, from what we see in the story. If he wanted to, he could probably get in without any deals whatsoever. You'd think that a hacker like Damien would appreciate that kind of challenge. Instead, we see him pointlessly selling us out for no real reason.

I just don't get it.

I hate this game.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 16: The Titular Words Are Hard

First off, I actually made a mistake in this episode. "Titular" is a word meaning "in the title". For example, Garrett the Master Thief is the titular "Thief" of that franchise. However, "eponymous" is the other way around. It is used to describe a thing named after an individual. For example, "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater" is Tony Hawk's eponymous game franchise.

What that cleared up, this episode is another one where neither Sam nor I have much to say about Watch_Dogs. This is where we basically give up and do a podcast in the middle of our Let's Play series.

Lastly, since one of my favorite pass-times is pointing out how far down the rabbit hole this filler crap goes:
  • Aiden Pearce's main objective is to find the person who ordered the hit that resulted in the death of his niece. He has already deduced that it has something to do with his last big heist: The Merlaut job.
  • To that end, he traced the IP address of the other person who hacked into the hotel's systems that day. It led him to Iraq's compound.
  • Aiden Pearce hacks server in Iraq's compound and partially downloads the data that was stolen, because that will apparently help us track the person who ordered the hit?
  • Clara gets the data, but can't hack it because it's encrypted. Instead of relying on her friends at Anonymous HQ, she figures that the only person who can break the encryption is Raymond Kenney, who created it.
  • Aiden Pearce goes out to the middle of nowhere to find Kenney, and gets beat up in a bar. :)
  • Kenney, now T-Bone, will only break the encryption if we do him a solid and hack into Blume's systems.
  • We have to acquire the materials and the access codes to break into Blume, to help Kenney, so that he will decrypt the data, so that we can read the data, and HOPEFULLY get one step closer to the man who ordered the hit on Aiden Pearce that accidentally killed his niece.
We are so far down the rabbit hole that we can't even the opening we fell through. These missions are so far separated from our main objective that Aiden Pearce might as well be on a tropical vacation for all the good this is doing him.

I hate pointless wastes of time, and I hate this game.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 15: Hope Is A Sad Thing

Now that I'm watching Sam play through this game again, I'm only now realizing just how much pointless fluff is in this story.

At this point in the story, we have acquired a part of the data located in Iraq's compound. Unfortunately, it's encrypted with a special encryption that can only be broken by the person who developed it: A former Blume employee named Raymond Kenney. (Blume is the company that made CTOS. Since this rarely comes up, you can be forgiven for not knowing that.)

Ignoring the fact that this data really isn't that important to our overall objective of figuring out who killed our dead nice, and further ignoring the fact that Clara should be able to get her hacker friends in on breaking the encryption, Aiden Pearce decides he needs to recruit Raymond Kenney to the cause in order to crack it.

At least the prostitution filler had the absolute mercy of being short. This is a entire act, consisting of 6 missions, dedicated to recruiting this guy to crack a code that doesn't need to be cracked, when should already have the resources required to do it ourselves.

I hate this game.

But on a more positive note, since we mention each of these guys early in the episode, it's worth linking to them here for your viewing pleasure.
John Green's Moral Story Through Grand Theft Auto 5
GoldVision's Grand Theft Auto Pacifist Series

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Texture Pop: Watch_Dogs: Episode 14: Puzzle Quest

I like the scene at the start of this episode, where Jacks watches Aiden Pearce slaughter several groups of armed men. It pretty subtle compared to many of the other scenes in game, yet that's what gives it power. Jacks doesn't need to say anything, just the simple act of pulling away from his Uncle Aiden is enough to convey everything that needs to be said. The psychologist's threat was just icing on the cake.

And then we get to Bedbug. I strongly suspect that the conversation between Bedbug and Aiden Pearce is meant to humanize Pearce a little bit. However, I personally found that it added more to Bedbug's character than Aiden Pearce's. He's not a bad person. He's just caught in a very bad situation. It's very telling that even after Aiden Pearce led Bedbug into a death trap, he still gave Pearce the information that he needed.

Unfortunately, neither of these people are the protagonist. Aiden Pearce is, much to my dismay.

I hate this game.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 13: Detour

Here it is, ladies and gentlemen. I present to you the most uncomfortable part of the game.

I still don't honestly know why this needed to be a part of the game. There's nothing wrong with video games trying to make some sort of point about sex trafficking. However, Watch_Dogs doesn't really say anything about it beyond "sex trafficking is wrong." Of course sex trafficking is wrong. What else do you have to say?

This scene didn't have the power for me that it clearly had on Sam. I thought it was a cheap way to make Lucky Quinn out to be unambiguously evil (and Iraq, by association).

There's also the fact that it's just so segregated from the rest of the plot. Remember, this story is about finding out who killed Aiden Pearce's niece and taking revenge. We know that it is likely the Merlaut job that gave this person motivation to assign the hit. Damien "gave" us the IP of the second hacker present during the Merlaut job, so we traced it to Iraq's compound.

And now, he need to corner Iraq at this slave auction, because of reasons that still never got explained. Since this part is to tertiary to the experience, we don't have time to delve into it. In terms of Aiden Pearce's story, it's not important. It's filler.

To me, the fact that someone so heavy and relevant is just relegated to filler content is unacceptable. If you want to include this kind of stuff, make it important. Make it a more core part of the narrative. If there's nothing to say about it, then why is it being brought up in the first place?

Evidently, whatever they had to say wasn't important to them, because it's relegated to a mere side-quest once this mission is over.

Sex trafficking: The Side Quest

I hate this game.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Texture Pop: Episode 50: Poppin' Off

This is it, ladies and gentleman. After over two years of podcasting, The Texture Pop's crew has decided to shut our virtual office doors.

As much as we all enjoy doing it (and make no mistake, we ALL enjoy doing this and this is more painful than any of us expected), the simple fact is that we're all really getting busy with our lives. It's been hectic for each one of us, and since we aren't getting paid for this podcast, it's even more difficult to justify the time we spend on it.

Now, this isn't to say that this is the last you'll see of us. Nor is it the last time we'll all get together for a production. Once we all settle into our respective routines, it's likely that we'll reunite for something new.

On top of that, we all have our own projects we'll be working on. Garrett is starting up his Twitch stream. He'll also be joining Chris and number of our old, mutual friends in another video game related project. As for Sam and I, we each have our own blogs and Interactive Friction will continue as normal.

So while The Texture Pop may be over, we're all just getting started! :)

#96: Final Fantasy Type-0: Experience of the Sidelines

I've played a great many RPGs throughout the years. In that time, I have seen many design decisions constantly repeated and reiterated across various different games. Often it makes sense to reuse these tropes. For example, leveling up is such a core concept in RPGs that it would be strange to have no form of character development. However, some of these same choices come back for seemingly no reason whatsoever.
Recently, I beat Final Fantasy Type-0 HD, victim to one of the latter design choices. Taking place in a steampunk/fantasy setting, Type-0 is a war story following the exploits of Class Zero, a group of cadets at the military academy in one of the four great nations in the world. There are 14 members of Class Zero, all playable characters in the game. The player can have, at most, 3 of the classmates deployed at the same time, with other members on standby. When an enemy is defeated, only the 3 deployed classmates gain experience, while every other character gets nothing. And while Final Fantasy Type-0 is hardly the first RPG to make this choice, it’s the one I can best use to explain the problems inherent to it.

Depriving non-participants of experience discourages players from experimenting with their party formation and character selection. When Final Fantasy Type-0 first introduces the player to the full cast, it makes the recommendation to "try to level every character evenly". This, as is the case with most games where members on standby don't gain experience, is a terrible idea. Following this advice will have one of two possible outcomes: Either the party will be so under-leveled that playing through main story missions is an exercise in frustration, or so much time will be spent grinding for experience that the player will completely forget the main story. Raising a character by a single-level takes a great many battles. With 14 playable characters, bringing them up to each missions recommended level would take several hours of tedious grinding. At the same time, missions at a much higher level pit the player against enemies that can and will annihilate a single character in one or two attacks. For this reason, most players will ultimately decided on 3 or 4 characters that they will focus their experience on, and largely ignore the rest of the them.
Part of the draw of a large pool of playable characters is that there is a variety in the archetypes and playstyles. Under the restriction that party members only level up when they actively partake in battle, this variety is stifled by practicality. For instance: there might be circumstances where it would make more sense to use a long-range party of King the duel-pistol wielder, Cater the magic-gunslinger, and Trey the archer, like when a mission is packed with flying enemies out of melee range. However, most people will likely only have one of them leveled enough to use in that mission. While it may make more sense to use that particular party against ranged enemies, it makes no sense to use it in any other circumstance.
Since it's only sensible to train up about 4 people, most players will have a strong melee-character, a good ranged character, and a support, with a possible backup character in the event one of the first three dies. Any thought of changing up the party to suit a new situation, or experimenting to find a formation that may work better, is thrown to the wayside in favor of sticking with the old and familiar.

On top of that, games with sufficiently large casts nearly always have scenes where the party has to divide itself into multiple groups, and Final Fantasy Type-0 is no exception. Several missions have the player form 2 groups of three cadets each. Since the odds are that most players will only have enough characters leveled up for one full battle party, this section is significantly worse than it should be. Practicality, it ensures that one team will be vastly inferior to the other, or that both teams will have one under-leveled character dragging them down. In either case, battle ability is severely reduced because the player has done exactly what the game's systems have incentivized them to do.
In my playthrough, during the first of these missions, both of the parties had two characters that were Level 30, and one trailing far behind at Level 15. Unsurprisingly, the weak one in each party did hardly any damage, spending most of the mission as a corpse. With two characters left to pick up the slack of a three-person job, I didn't have as much fun with these missions as did with the others in the game. I had to restart this mission several times because, with the addition of my undue handicap, the enemies were just strong enough that my two level 30s in one team taking much more damage any dying more than they had in other missions. At one point, I even had to give up, go into a previous save, and rethink who I sent with which team. Needless to say, I was fairly unhappy with the game for crippling me like that.

Even though it’s extremely clear that this one concept hurts the games that use it, it is unlikely to get phased out anytime soon. As a genre, RPGs are soaked in tradition, making it difficult to weed out overused design cliches. Even worse, this is one that appears frequently, even in many of the greats like Persona 4 and Valkyrie Profile. Knowing this, I still think it's healthy to evaluate these game design tropes to see if they're still worth maintaining. Though it's common for the reserve party to not gain experience, this trope does more harm than good.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 12: Something Deeply Wrong

In this episode, we delve head-long into the sex trafficking side-plot. As I've said in previous posts, I find this to be one of the most disturbing arcs in the game.

I'm not necessarily against having a video game comment on heavy topics like sex trafficking. My issue with this subplot is that Watch_Dogs wants to use this topic, but doesn't want to provide any commentary for it. Yes, of course it's disgusting that women are bought, transported, and sold against their will for a profit. Nobody in their right mind would argue otherwise. However, the apolitical nature of the story leaves makes this segment milquetoast.

We'll get into more detail about this in the next episode, but I have the same problem with Watch_Dogs that I do about many of the sex-trafficking episodes of crime-serials like CSI. It's only purpose is to be used as a shorthand for "Yes, this obviously evil bad-guy is evil." In fact, Watch_Dogs is even worse than those shows. Most of those episodes take the time to follow the personal story of one of the victims so that we can somewhat understand how a young woman could find themselves in that situation. It's rarely ever a great attempt, but it's something. As you'll soon see, Watch_Dogs doesn't really put in a token effort. Given that the game is about this world where everyone and everything is monitored and connected, that's such a wasted opportunity.

I hate this game.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 11: Copyright Ruins Everything Around Me

This episode was supposed to go up yesterday. However, when I went to view it and start writing the post for it, we found that there was a copyright claim on our Unlisted video. The reason for this is that a segment of the game uses "C.R.E.A.M" by the Wu Tang Clan. Considering the theme of that song, there is some deep irony.

Having said that:

There is a large section of this video where both Sam and myself are legitimately unsure of what the point of this plot is. Now that I've had the luxury of watching the episodes, let me summarize what happened.

  • Aiden Pearce needs to get into the Viceroy compound in order to identify the second hacker during the Merlaut job.
  • Aiden Pearce identifies Bedbug as a weak-link in the gang's chain-of-command, and decides to use him as his way in.
  • Aiden Pearce follows Bedbug in order to find some sort of blackmail evidence, and records him making deals behind Iraq's back.
  • Meanwhile, Iraq is getting sick of Bedbug costing him business due to his ineptitude. Because he is a basket-case, he opts to have his cousin killed instead of just kicking him out of the gang.
  • Aiden Pearce deduces that Iraq will have Bedbug killed, because he is apparently psychic. This magical foresight extends to the conclusion that if Bedbug can survive the assassination attempt, Iraq will welcome him back with open arms to save face.
  • Armed with these deductions, Aiden Pearce kills off the Viceroys assigned to the hit job: All of them. This will help him move Bedbug into a position where he can aid Aiden Pearce.
  • Back in a position of power, Bedbug walks the park peacefully until Aiden Pearce shatters his world in an instant, promising to being him low if he doesn't do exactly as Aiden Pearce says.
  • Extracting information from Bedbug, we learn that Iraq will be at a "private" auction run by Lucky Quinn. We need to infiltrate the auction in order to get close to Iraq, for reason that nobody adequately explains.
This is one of those plot-driven doors Shamus Young talks about frequently. We have deviated so far from the original goal of finding out who the second hacker is that it seems like it would be easier to do an old-fashioned stealth mission in the compound. This is such a roundabout way to solve an otherwise simple problem.

In other words, this is the worst part of the game, and it's all filler.

I hate this game.

And I hate YouTube's copyright bullshit.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 10: Ultimate Cyber-Vigilante

And now we've gotten to it. Goddamn Iraq and Bedbug. This is easily one of the worst parts of the game. Not the worst, (Dear god. It gets much worse from here.), but it demonstrates how the writers took all of these elements and melded them together without really understanding the subtext and implications behind that particular combination.

Again, I know that people like Iraq do exist out there. There are gang members who go join the army for the sole purpose of learning their tactics and bringing them back home. However, that still raises the question of why the writers made the choice to use these tropes. Perhaps they simply wanted to justify having military-grade enemies to fight, but we already have no-face fixers for that. If they were trying to make some commentary about gangs and/or poor sections of the city, then that was gutted out at some point in a misguided attempt to be apolitical.

Bedbug is another problem, but for a completely different reason. He is a criminal, sure. But I get the distinct impression that he's only that way because Iraq is that way. As uncomfortable as it sounds, he seems to be like Lenny from Of Mice and Men. And that's on top of the fact that he's clearly in the lower-income level. In different circumstances, he could've been a good kid. Knowing that these same circumstances make Bedbug very easy to manipulate, Aiden Pearce decides that he needs to get blackmail him in order to get access to the Viceroy compound.

Aiden Pearce has not been someone I'd like to root for since the very start of the game, but this is a real low. Remember, Ubisoft wants us to root for this guy. Despite spending all of this time beating up criminals (an enterprise funded by theft), and having no redeeming qualities whatsoever, we're supposed to treat him as a hero.

I hate this game.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 9: Towers of Annoyed

First off, I am very aware of how awful the audio quality was for this session. Sam's equipment started acting up, and there's not much we could've done to fix it.

You're not supposed to think about the logistics of having an army of underprivileged, troubled youths in full military gear. However, I think that's a good question to bring up. Not just because it's implausible, but because it also raises to subsequent question of why did Ubisoft do this. We already have a group of mercenaries called fixers, so we didn't need another excuse to have armed and armored enemies. On top of that, it's downright painful to see these tropes and stereotypes invoked without any real attention being called to them.

Strap in and buckle up, ladies and gentleman, because this is only going to get worse. Just wait until we actually start talking about Iraq. I'm genuinely impressed at how awful this upcoming section of the game is.

I hate this game.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

#95: Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Missteps

As you may be aware, I have recently began exploring the Souls games, starting with Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. My opinions on both games are largely positive. My playthrough of Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First was informed by these experiences, which explained why I did not like the game as much. It was not a bad game. However, the game betrays a lack of understanding as to why many of the choices in the original Dark Souls were made. This manifests in design changes that cause a number of problems throughout the game.

The first of these changes is the resurrection of consumable healing items. As I said before in my article about the Estus Flasks in the first Dark Souls, removing the ability to grind for recovery items was a drastic improvement from Demon's Souls to Dark Souls. Rather than reiterate points than I spent an entirely separate article making, I just want to comment on how strange it is to go back to using these items when they already had such an elegant solution in place.To make this worse, the imbalance caused by these items is exacerbated by the fact that the Estus Flask also made its return. It is given to them right after the tutorial is completed. With the reusable Estus Flask ever present in the inventory, players are encouraged to amass large stockpiles of items which they will rarely, if ever, use. I, personally, only used these Lifegems myself when I was absolutely out of Estus and in the middle of a boss fight. Otherwise, I would just hoof it back to the bonfire and try again to maintain my stockpile.

Another alteration to the game is in the way enemies respawn after being killed. In the original Dark Souls, returning to a bonfire revived every enemy that had been defeated, barring a few special exceptions. This is no longer the case in Dark Souls 2, as each enemy will only respawn a finite number of times before they will no longer appear (until the next playthrough). Two major problems arise from this change. First, like the addition of consumable items, it throws off the balance between the urge to continue on and the need to rest and replenish your inventory that I wrote about previously. Making a series of suicide runs in order to eliminate opponents has now become a perfectly valid tactic for making it through areas. Rather than continue to encourage that agonizing decision-making its predecessor was so famous for, Dark Souls 2 transforms every stage into a battle of attrition, as each run slowly depletes the enemy forces. I myself did this a number of time in stages like the Iron Keep and Shulva, Sanctum City.
And second, because there are only a finite number of enemies in the game, souls are also a finite resource. Players receive souls from defeated enemies, which they can use to purchase items/weapon upgrades and strengthen their characters. However, should they die, any unspent souls will be lost. In order to reclaim them, they need to return to the where they died and touch their bloodstain. Failure to do so before the next death will result in the permanent loss of those souls. Since enemies in Dark Souls never stop spawning, there is always a way to acquire more souls even in the event of heavy losses. Once an enemy stops appearing in Dark Souls 2, it is impossible to claim their souls by defeating them. Though I never reached a point where I couldn't obtain the souls I needed, the knowledge that my deaths were depleting the world's supply made each one much harder to swallow.
In the original Dark Souls, I have a very clear memory of exploring the Tomb of the Giants and amassing over 70000 souls. Just as I was about to return to the bonfire, my game was invaded by another player, who killed me in an instant with her barrage of magic and lag. As I attempted to reach my bloodstain, I was ambushed by a horde of giant skeletons. I had made a mistake in fighting them, and that mistake meant that those 70000 souls were gone. My anger at the loss was assuaged by the knowledge that it would be quite possible to replace those lost Soul by grinding later on if I had the desire.
During my adventures in Dark Souls 2, I had similar tales of losses, yet none exceeding 35000 souls at any one time. But even if the losses were momentarily lower, the knowledge that my ineptitude caused a decrease in not just the number of souls I had, but also the net total of possible souls in the game, made those losses sting a lot more. Enemies provide far more than enough souls for a given playthrough, yet just knowing than there is only a finite supply makes even small losses feel wasteful.

The biggest negative change that Dark Souls 2 made was in the way that foes attack. When an enemy attacked the player in either Demon's Souls or Dark Souls, they had to commit to both the attack and the direction in which they were attacking. Since the player was also bound by these same rules, fights were often fair. The best way to fight would be to stay on the defensive and look for openings in enemy attack patterns that could be exploited. Though some of the strongest enemies did have tracking attacks, it was only up to the point where they began to strike, and only to compensate for how slow the windup was for those particular moves.
In the sequel, they made a bizarre decision that I still don't entirely understand. Almost every enemy has an uncanny ability to track the player while they are attacking. This has an adverse effect on the combat, making it easier for them to land blows and conversely more difficult for the player to do the same. When I was exploring the Iron Keep in Dark Souls 2, I encountered an enemy that best demonstrates the problem. The Ironclad Soldiers held therein are particularly vicious foes with powerful attacks and decent armor. One of the advantages they have over the player is that when they wind up to unleash their overhead smash, they can hold their club in position over their head until the player is in range. Then, the portion of the move the inflicts damage will kick in quickly. They are also able to turn and face a strafing player while actively swinging the club horizontally. No opponent from previous Souls games have these same advantages to these degrees, and there is a very good reason for that. When the enemies are bound to the same rules as the player is, there is a sense of fairness born from that. The presence of that fairness means that most failures and deaths in combat can be directly attributed to the player. Taking it away leaves a sense that game is cheating in order to win, like a cruel, obstinate dungeon master in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

Again, I do not want to give off the impression that Dark Souls 2 is a bad game. Rather, it is a poor continuation of an excellent franchise. Though I believe that the director of Dark Souls 2 was a fan of the franchise, the changes made from one project to the next belie a lack of understanding as to what made the first Dark Souls, and Demon's Souls, such gems. The guidance of Hidetaka Miyazaki, who directed the earlier Souls games, was not needed to gain this insight. Taking a moment to see what worked with those two games, what needed improvement, and the trade-offs of each change would have been a boon to the production. Such analysis would have prevented many of the mistakes made in Dark Souls 2.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 8: "Like a Cookie?"

This is the last of the footage we have for now. Hopefully, we'll be able to do some more recordings soon, but both Sam and myself have been busy as of late.

Aiden Pearce does it again. The day just isn't finished unless he's beaten the shit out of somebody.

I just cannot understand what he was trying to do at the poker game. He knows that the guy we are looking for is highly paranoid and prone to reckless and brash actions when provoked. Therefore, he feels that the rational thing to do is not try to butter him in a poker game, but instead to openly and thoughtlessly antagonize him by bringing up the very reason he's paranoid!

It's like Aiden Pearce did what he did precisely so that he would have the chance to take out his police baton and knock some old-looking man senseless.

Aiden Pearce, beating up the elderly. (Or at least people who look elderly.)

Keep in mind, this guy is supposed to be our hero.

I hate this game.