Monday, March 30, 2015

Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013): Episode 7: Uncomfortable Deaths

In this episode, Sam and I talk about some of the more uncomfortable parts of the game.

As I said in the episode, Tomb Raider (2013) makes most of Lara's deaths look much more brutal than we're used to seeing in video games. The ones we show off in this episode are the most gruesome, but they are not the only such fatalities on display.

I believe that the reason the deaths in these games are so uncomfortable because of the way the game lingers on them. In most games, the developers would be in a hurry to fade to black before we see the character start to suffer, and begin to start at the last checkpoint (or save game). Though resets are pretty quick in Tomb Raider, we also see, in vivid detail, just how much Lara suffers as she slowly dies. The death isn't immediate, and that suffering is uncomfortable to watch.

The way theses scenes cause discomfort in the player is clearly intentional. Not only does it provide an even stronger disincentive to fool around in these scenes (more than usual), but it also helps to sell the feeling that the island is a giant hazard, just doing its best to kill Lara. It is a very interesting way to make the mechanics reinforce the story.

The voice acting, animation, and shot composition are also top-notch in both the deaths and the cauterization scene. Though that scene isn't a death, it's another fantastic scene how Lara is beginning to change her way of thinking in order to survive on the island.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

#84: Dragon Age 2: Pacing and Plot Structure

Some time ago, I played Dragon Age: Origins. Back then, I expressed issues with how it was paced, citing The Fade and The Deep Roads in particular as two segments of bad filler content. Recently, I have revisited the franchise with Dragon Age 2. Despite being in the same series, the two have quite different forms of pacing. Because of their differences, I think that taking a moment to compare the two of them and their structures should be interesting.

With Origins, the plot structure was modular. After the initial tutorial missions, the player is given free reign to take on the four plot branches that compose the middle of the game in any order they choose. Each of these modules has its own plot and locations, separate from the rest aside from one or two instances. At the end of the game, the player's actions in these individual segments will be reflected back in the form of how each faction thinks of them and how much they are willing to help in the grand finale. The result is a fairly free-form gaming experience, within limits.
This structure allows Origins to give each module its own feel, but there is a drawback to this classic role-playing approach. When these sections can be so thoroughly quarantined from the others, it grants the developers freedom to make each part longer than it should be. In particular, the designers have the leeway to create overly long exploration and dungeon locations. Dragon Age: Origins had this problem in spades. Often, any single area could take several hours to complete, more-so if the player is going for total completion. Players could spend entire game sessions feeling that nothing was accomplished in that time. Obvious padding like The Fade and The Deep Roads, during the Circle Tower and Orzammar scenarios respectively, are chief examples of how this structure permitted Bioware to do this.

On the other hand, Dragon Age 2 manages to skirt that pitfall with its narrative structure, yet introduces new ones all the same. Rather than expand on Origin's modularity, DA2 takes a different approach. Players spend all of Dragon Age 2 in the city of Kirkwall, watching it develop over the course of years. Each of the game's three acts details key events of a particular year in Kirkwall's history through the eyes of Hawke, the game's customizable, yet constant, protagonist. With a distinct beginning, middle, and end, these acts serve as the way Bioware chosen to divide the story.
What is neat about this structure is that it forces a more focused plot. Since any given act has to feed into its successors, it cannot afford to tarry around with plot points that may never be touched on again in the future. Gradually, they all, by necessity, get woven together as the story progresses. Combined with the obvious signs of a limited development cycle, this focus carried on into the dungeon-crawling as well. While a single area could take hours in Origins, DA2 takes a more succinct approach. Locations will rarely, if ever, take over a half-hour to complete, which gives a much greater sense of accomplishment when checking the quest log after a long session. Individual plot elements and their handling can be debated on, but there is no denying that the plot structure for Dragon Age 2 lends to a faster pacing than its predecessor.

Having said that, pacing is in more than just a game's narrative structure. Combat also tends to have its own tempo in RPGs like Dragon Age. Origins in particular had a slower, more methodical system. Enemies tended to have a fairly high amount of health, so even fights against small parties could take some time. Unfortunately for Bioware, since skill and equipment setups mattered significantly more than tactical planning mid-battle, conflicts were often decided from the outset.
Rather than go the route of its direct predecessor, Dragon Age 2 takes inspiration from its contemporaries, most notably the likes of Mass Effect 2. As with Origins, equipment and skill setups are important to one's quality of life when going up against enemies. The difference here is that the moment-to-moment action has become equally as important, with an emphasis on faster combat. It can still be said that the player will steamroll most encounters in the game, but it feels more smooth than than of the previous game in the franchise, largely due to its accelerated pace.

Even if the overall combat's pace is improved, there is problem that adversely affects it: Foes have a strong tendency to spawn in waves. When playing Dragon Age: Origins, the types and number of enemies in a given location was usually set in stone. Because players could see what they were about to fight, they could better plan their attack. Even if a single target took some time to beat down, it was possible to guess how long it will take to win.
This is not the case in Dragon Age 2. In most engagements, players will clear out a given set of enemies only to find that another group has spawned in, ready to fight to the death. Typically, any one fight will be composed of three waves in total. Though individual foes, and sometimes enemy groups, can be felled quickly, the fact that more will inevitably appear immediately afterwards makes it more difficult to anticipate how long a given encounter will take to complete. As a result, even if a fight is not long, it can be made to feel long thanks to how many mooks participate in a single battle. Even if Dragon Age 2 is better paced than Origins, this misstep starts to agitate after playing for a long time.

In terms of both story and combat, Dragon Age 2 drastically improves on the pacing of the game that came before. Enhancing the original structure by focusing the overall plot line and streamlining the fighting resulted in a much smoother flow. Though certain elements like the ending and obvious, blatant reuse of assets can be rightfully criticized by detractors, Dragon Age 2 is certainly worth defending in how it gives the player a strong feeling of progress.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013): Episode 6: "I Hate Tombs" - Lara Croft, Tomb Raider

In this episode, we discuss the puzzle design.

Puzzle design in video games is very difficult to get right. In the ideal world, each individual puzzle room will show you everything you'll need to know in order to understand how to solve the puzzle. Because every person things has their own way of thinking, it is incredibly difficult to do this without outright telling the player how to solve it.

Lean too far in the direction of making the puzzle abstract, and there is a risk that the player won't have the first clue in how to solve it. Going too far in the other direction, and make the solution obvious, will make the player feel stupid.

Tomb Raider seems to do a very good job of towing that middle ground. Most people I know didn't have too much trouble solving these challenges, but they still felt smart for solving them. Again, that's difficult to get right. Even with Uncharted, Sam felt that the puzzles were a little on the hard side, but not overly so. I, on the other hand, felt like the puzzles were too easy. That's not saying that Sam's any more or less intelligent than I am. It means that the puzzles in Uncharted were better suited to the way I think than they were to Sam's. This difference in people is what makes good puzzle design so hard, and Tomb Raider should be applauded for how it gets that right.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Texture Pop: Episode 33: Tactical Puzzle Solving

Sam was completely exhausted when we recorded this episode. Because of that, he had to miss out on the podcast. A shame, because we talk about a lot of topics which call for his input.

0:02:30 Viewer Questions
"Have any of you guys played Ori and the Blind Forest?"
Guess what? Sam did. And next week, he may even talk about it. As someone who hasn't I have to admit it looks really good and I'd love to play it.

Have you guys seen the trailer for Pixels?
I am open to this being a good movie. However, Adam Sandler does not exactly have the best track record. I will be watching how this develops with guarded expectations.

0:12:50 Gaming News
Hideo Kojima will be leaving Konami after Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
Like I said in the podcast, I would say this is the beginning of the end for Konami. Aside from the YuGiOh card game (and video games), they don't have much else. With Kojima gone, I have no idea what Konami is going to do with Silent Hills now, since they just let go of the guy who was supposed to make it. It's not looking good.

PlayStation Vue is Sony's answer to cable.
And it's dumb. With far too few channels at far too great a price, I have no idea how Sony plans to make that work. I'm not even sure who the target market is for this service. It's confusing, to say the least.

0:30:50 Garrett discusses his computer troubles.
Turns out it is an issue with the latest update to the drivers for his graphics card. We've all haad issues like this, and it's good to vent about them when they happen. Also, congrats to Garrett for starting his Twitch channel.

0:39:40 Garrett talks about the rest of his week.

0:44:40 I finished Dragon Age 2.
I wish Sam was here, because it would've been a much more interesting conversation than it was. I like Dragon Age 2 is a good game, but it has a lot of flaws. It's paced so much better than Origins was. At the same time, it's ending is complete garbage.
Where Chris thinks the game is garbage, and Sam likes it, I'm somewhere in the middle. There will be an article about it soon.

0:57:30 I played Valiant Hearts: The Great War.
It's a game worth playing, but it bizarre issues with keeping a consistent tone. The puzzles also really wreak the pacing of the game.
While awkward, the game is still good. I'm also working on an article for this game.

1:06:10 Chris talks about playing Punch-Out, featuring Mr. Dream.
And he talk about that for a bit.

1:20:00 Wrapping Up.
Interactive Friction can be found here.
My Resident Evil 5 article is here.

Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013): Episode 5: National Ubisoft Tower Climbing Day

In this episode, we climb the only tower that exists in this entire game. Despite that, I still take a potshot at Ubisoft and their goddamn towers.

We spent a fair amount of time talking about the scene where Lara sits while the pilot of the rescue plane is slaughtered right in front of her. To be clear, not everything we discuss is necessarily a problem. And even if it is, it might not even be a big concern worth addressing with anything more than a passing glance. This is one of those complaints.

Though we occasionally have portions of the game where we have a rough idea of what we want to talk about, the vast majority of our commentary is completely spur of the moment. Because of that, there is absolutely no connection between how often or how long we speak about a specific topic or mechanic and how strong our feelings about it are. We might end up spending whole sections talking about relatively minor complements and complaints. Likewise, we could mention major problems in passing if the conversation doesn't lend itself to us talking about them.

For example, when I discussed how silly it is for different animal hides to make different bags in Far Cry 3, I do not think that making every animal produce a general hide to make whatever would have improved the game. In fact, it would make the game worse because one could get all the bags at the start. With the pilot issue, it is not a huge problem since he's a minor, irrelevant character. However, it is worth pointing out just to acknowledge it and move on.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013): Episode 4: No One Shops At Radioshack...

In this episode, we remember Radioshack for a brief moment, further reminding ourselves of its irrelevancy. It's so irrelevant, that Chrome's built-in spell check thinks it's a typo.

For the record, Tomb Raider is the very first game I've ever played that used automatic cover. Personally, this game sold me on the mechanic. I'd like to see more games used a feature like this in the future. As somebody who has played many cover-based shooters and action-adventure games in the vein of Uncharted, I think that there could be many uses. In those games, I often find the cover mechanics to be a little sticky. With automatic cover, I could imagine adding a new sense of mobility to a lot of games, as we see in a number of sections in this game.

On that topic, we mention Uncharted a lot in this episode, and the comparisons for this game is unavoidable. In the way that Naughty Dog took much inspiration from the old Tomb Raider games when making Uncharted, Crystal Dynamics took a large amount of inspiration from Uncharted when making the new Tomb Raider reboot. Still, even though they both have the same sense of style, there are enough differences, both big and small, between the two franchises to give them their own flavors.

Lastly, I cannot take credit for "What do they eat?" That's something I took from Shamus Young after watching a lot of Spoiler Warning, another Let's Play series that you might enjoy. Generally speaking, it is a good question to ask in order to see how much a writer has fleshed out their world. If the explanations for how people acquire resources stretch credulity, then the odds are that the game world in question wasn't thought out very well. There are always exceptions to rules like this, but it can be a reasonable barometer.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

#83: Resident Evil 5: Old Dogs, Older Tricks

Apparently, spoopy “horror” games are slowly becoming more and more of an area-of-expertise for me. If you were to ask me about these kinds of games even one year ago, I would only be able to talk about them through second-hand experiences. Now, I have gained a limited amount of experience. Thanks to my co-op partner, I was “convinced” to continue this education by playing Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition. For your mild entertainment, I amused this option. While playing it, I found that in many respects, it felt like it was trapped in the past of its genre. This week, I will discuss why this is the case.
But first, a bit of information about the game. Released in early 2009, Resident Evil 5 came out to high expectations after its predecessor became so popular in the previous generation. Taking place in Somewhere, Africa, the game follows protagonist Chris Redfield and his current partner, Sheva Alomar, as they work together to investigate a mysterious incident on the continent while looking for Chris's old comrade, Jill Valentine, who was previously assumed dead. The two have to work together to find out what is going on, solving puzzles and fighting zom... infected along the way. The Gold Version, which is what I used for the purpose of this article, was released a year later and included all of the DLC for the game.

The story for RE5 was just a thoughtless overuse of old, established horror cliches. The villain just felt like a cardboard cutout of the villain from every super-hero comic book published before 1980. The game even acknowledges this when Chris mocks him for it during the final boss. One who has even a passing familiarity with fiction involving mutagenic bio-weapons is likely already knowledgeable of the stock excuses for such silly plans, and Resident Evil 5 uses almost all of them. Even on that level, Resident Evil 5 relies too heavily on tropes without distinguishing itself.

Having said that, the gameplay that the story exists to mildly justify is pretty interesting. With the help of either an AI partner or another human being, players use limited resources to either fight or flee from zom... infected. Since each protagonist has only 9 inventory slots, space is limited. This makes it so that even in the event where players find excess resources, they must be careful when choosing what to allocate space to. Though this limited inventory does feel like a holdover from the days when Resident Evil could be considered a survival horror game, it does work to force players to use good aim and tactics to conserve resources.

Unfortunately, the other parts of the gameplay have flaws on their own. Gunplay, as an example, works similarly to Deadly Premonition's. When aiming at enemies, players must stand still, unable to move. Again, in the context of a survival horror game, this would be an interesting decision. Players would need to be more conscious of the fight or flight dynamics, since standing one's ground exists entirely in opposition to running away from or through a group of enemies. However, in the more action-oriented environment of Resident Evil 5, it feels somewhat out of place. That said, this lack of movement does make it easier to aim in this game as opposed to other games out there. Despite the added benefit, I feel that the game would have been better served removing this restriction. When later sections turn fighting into an awkward third-person shooter, it demonstrates just how awkward the game really is.

On top of that, there are a couple of other old conventions that just feel either poorly tacked on or silly in context. The less egregious of these two elements are the Quicktime Events, which is saying something. The player who assumes the role of Chris has their own prompts, as does the one who plays Sheva. Sometimes they will have the same prompts, but this is not always the case. Failure to complete any one of the button inputs will result in an automatic instant-death, with the need to retry the event from the beginning. These are, almost without exception, never fun. Honestly, I do not understand why Quicktime Events have gotten very popular, especially when losing results in game over. Since the game came out in 2009, before the practice started to lose favor, I can somewhat understand why they were included. After all, it was still a fairly popular mechanic back in that era. In the modern context, it just does not work, and this is great example of why that is the case.

The other tired trope Resident Evil 5 heavily utilized was frequent instant death. Many of the larger enemies in the game have attacks that will automatically kill either player, no matter how much health they have, and without the possibility of the other player resuscitating them. Fighting these enemies becomes a major annoyance as a result, especially since the irreversible end of either player results in a game over. Certain environmental obstacles also have this effect. One particular example from the middle of the game comes to mind. As games of this ilk are wont to do, Resident Evil 5 includes a light-bending puzzle. With the help of reflective mirrors, the player team is required to point a beam of light towards a trigger mechanism in order to proceed. Unfortunately, the light is also a death ray that will kill either player on touch, resetting the entire puzzle. When this fact can only be discovered by falling victim to it, annoyance and frustration is guaranteed. Like in the above instance, most of the other instant death traps in Resident Evil 5 feel cheap.

Resident Evil 5 is not a bad game. It just does not do anything to really stand out among its contemporaries, even from the period in which the game was published. As a co-op game, it is functional, serving as a good excuse to get together with a friend and have some good time. On the whole, its overuse of old mechanics and stories from the grand list of scary movie/game cliches demonstrates a sheer lack of creativity from the designers.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013): Episode 3: Dressed For The Occasion

In this episode, we talk about playing pretty dress-up with video game protagonists.

It is a nice touch that Roth is the one who duel-wields pistols instead of Lara. Roth is the one who taught Lara everything she knows about fighting. He's the grizzled veteran who's gone through tough situations before, not Lara. It's a sign of how tough he is as a fighter. Once Lara eventually gains experience after enduring all of these trials, she's earned her ability to do the same in the game's finale.

The other big thing we talk about in the beginning is that unlike Far Cry 3, the game does an excellent job of telling you why our protagonist does not or cannot just stop and leave. In Far Cry 3, there are several points in the game where Jason could resolve all of his problems and leave the island, but instead deliberately chooses not to for completely contrived reasons. In Tomb Raider (2013), Lara is always put in circumstances that not only explain why she has to keep going, but why she can't hand the reins over to people who might otherwise be more experienced.

Furthermore, because Roth is a Lara's mentor, and she is born into a family of adventurers, she has enough people in her life that it makes sense for her to naturally pick up skills like basic first aid and combat. Jason Brody might be able to get by with Grant, but the game never explicitly states why he is just so good when he's never shot a weapon of any kind before.

The rest of our commentary this episode stands on its own. This was a pretty good episode and we made a lot of good commentary on it.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013): Episode 2: The Titular Archaeologist

First off, this episode was supposed to be posted yesterday, but both Sam and myself completely forgot to do so. For that, I would like to apologize to you guys who are watching us.

Early on in what can be generously referred to as my game criticism "career," I wrote this article comparing the collectibles in Tomb Raider to those in Assassin's Creed 3. As I said in this episode, the collectibles in this game, namely the diaries and the artifacts, really add depth to the world, the side cast, and Lara herself. Whereas in AC3, all of it was frivolous. I feel this is worth pointing out because so many games do so little with collectibles that they are almost entirely pointless.

I said my criticisms regarding Sam in a general sense here, but we'll go into further detail as the game progresses. For a game that has such a well-written female protagonist, to rely on the damsel-in-distress trope feels strange and tiresome in comparison. Sam's one of the worst types of damsels, so it comes off as even more irritating.

Like Sam, Whitman feels like another tired trope, that of the incredibly obvious betrayer of the team. His motivation is also one of the worst. Survival isn't why he betrays us, it's because he wants to be the one to document all of this. It's so bad that it's laughable.

One of the last scenes we see in this episode is the uncomfortable "rape" scene. I can somewhat understand why this scene exists, because it helps to reinforce the kind of opposition Lara will be facing as the game progresses. These men are so deranged that they think nothing of forcing another into a sex act unwillingly. Furthermore, it gives him an excuse to get close enough for Lara to be able to grab the gun in a plausible manner, making her first kill. In the end, it does work, but it still could have probably be handled better.

As we also mention in the episode, the time between our first kill, and the first fight against human beings is on the small side, for good reasons. In the ideal world, the developers would have been able to hold off on giving us pistol ammo. However, I do believe the transition was handled with much more skill than Jason Brody's was in Far Cry 3.

Though we missed in during our conversation, Lara has a very good line right after her first genuine fight. When climbing up the rope ladder, she is talking with Roth on the radio. He says "[Killing those guys] can't have been easy." She responds with, "It's scary just how easy it was." That's really all you need. Even though the transition was somewhat rushed, the acknowledgement that the character is better in violent situations than could or should otherwise be expected helps alleviate that tension.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Texture Pop: Episode 32: Living Your Anime Life

It's hard to really say what happened this week, I suppose with Sam and I releasing the previous episode, recording Interactive Friction's new season, and doing this episode all in the span of about 4 days, we must have lost track of all the conversations that took place on and off the air. As a result, we did end up repeated a lot of what we said in the last show. Since Chris didn't get the chance to see any of it, I suppose it's all good. The audio this week wasn't that good either, so I sincerely apologize for that.

Also, we had no viewer questions this week. If you have a question, comment, or something you'd like to be read on the air in a hilariously bad/inappropriate accent, you may send it to us at

0:02:00 Gaming News
Battlefield Hardline doesn't want you to feel bad for killing dudes.
I suppose that I can understand this thought process. AAA gaming tends to, for better or worse, appeal to the most common denominator. Since most people who buy Battlefield: Hardline will be the same types of people who buy other Battlefield or Call of Duty games, EA and Visceral has to assume that they either don't want to, or won't, think about the potential repercussions for their in-game actions.
Having said all that, it is extremely disappointing, and very tone deaf, to make this story about a cop without changing and recontextualizing the gameplay to fit that new environment. Combat between cops and criminals is not the same as combat between military forces and terrorists, so there's no reason whatsoever for them to be so similar. It's a wasted opportunity.

Valiant Hearts director leaves Ubisoft to go into the indie space.
I find this interesting only because this story is becoming more and more common as the years go on. A lot of the people who have spent years working in the industry are getting sick of the way AAA developers are treating them, so they're leaving. In light of the many horror stories we hear from AAA, Now that publishers are becoming less and less necessary in the era where any person can just build a website to sell a game, the dynamic is changing in a good way.

0:19:00 Chris played Dragonball: Xenoverse.
I'm actually oddly interested in Dragonball: Xenoverse, but not enough that I'm willing to purchase it for full price. It looks like it would be pretty fun for a Dragonball fan, but otherwise fairly average.

0:37:50 Chris watched the first episode of Powers on PlayStation Plus.
I don't know much about it, but what Chris said made me interested.

0:46:50 Garrett talks about his week.
But eventually we start talking about movies, specifically...

0:51:35 Garrett watched Lady in the Water
Since movies are notoriously not my strong suite, I've not much more to add.

1:06:30 Sam has played more inFamous: Second Son. *MAJOR SPOILERS*
Because we talked about it after finishing our Interactive Friction recording session, it was difficult to remember what Sam said to me only versus what we spoke of on the air last week.
That said, I still think Second Son is an interesting case study to show just how far we've evolved from the days of moral choice systems. The game is trapped in the past, with no acknowledgement of how both storytelling and game mechanics have changed.
Given what we've said about this game in the past, I believe that Sam's idea of shorter DLCs focusing on a single character and power set would work much better for the game.

1:25:20 Sam played Killzone: Shadow Fall.
I know very little about Killzone, so there's not much to add here.

1:32:10 Sam played Korean MMOs with his anime friends.
Honestly, do I NEED to say anymore? He had to "live his anime life."

1:42:30 I played more Dragon Age 2.
I appreciate the faster-pace in the combat and dungeon-exploration. Compared to Origins, this game is paced significantly better. Having said that, it does have it's issues. We'll probably talk more in the next podcast about this very topic, since I did finish it after this recording.

1:52:00 I played a bit of Papo Y Yo.
I just wish I had more to say about it. It's much the same problem I had with Contrast. It is a good game, but not enough material for discussion.

1:54:30 Wrapping Up.
Garrett recommends Overwolf, which does not sponsor us.
Interactive Friction's Tomb Raider season has begun.
We also did a bonus episode on Blood Dragon.
My Far Cry 4 article is also worth a read.

Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013): Episode 1: Here We Go Again

Welcome everyone, to the new season of Interactive Friction. After talking about it so much during the Far Cry 3 season, we decided to go into more detail by covered the 2013 reboot of Tomb Raider.

I know it's strange to spend so much time discussing font choices and subtitles, but that something that is so commonly done wrong in games that there are not many examples of well done subtitles. The only reason that is a major pet peeve of mine is that it took me a long time to upgrade from SD to HD when I first got my PS3. Because of the way HD gets downgraded, a lot of text became extremely difficult to read on SD television sets. A lot of that frustration can be easily escaped by just making smarter choices in font and presentation.

We also enables TressFX, and honestly it's not that great. When Lara is just running around, then it's okay. However, when she's more active, it's far too bounce-y, to the point where it's distracting and immersion-breaking.

It is also interesting to view this tutorial in contrast to the "parody" tutorial we just went through in the Blood Dragon episode. The game is really good at using these initial gameplay sections to teach you basic mechanics without patronizing you without pointless pop-ups if you have already played it or other games like it before.

One of the throughlines we are going to explore as we advance this series is how similar Far Cry 3 is to Tomb Raider in terms of the overall story arc. However, Tomb Raider handles not only the transition from scared college kid into hardened warrior significantly better than Far Cry 3 does. It is much more believable and Lara earns her character arc much more than Jason Brody does.

For example, in the first episode of Far Cry 3, we had already made a human kill. Though Jason felt bad about it, the game spent almost no time dwelling on it. In that same episode, we were already acquiring weapons and firing them at animals. At this point, the only kill Lara has to her name is a deer, and she's completely broken up about it. While Jason has already started fighting against people, Lara is still in process of getting her bearings and figuring out how to stay alive, making her feel a lot more like a human being than Jason ever really did. Plus, she has the added benefit the player being able to see her face, giving us a better window into how she feels.

We'll talk a bit more about what else Tomb Raider does to make the transition from normal person to warrior more believable, but that will happen as we progress through the game's story.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Interactive Friction: Far Cry 3: Bonus Episode: BLOOD DRAGON BRO!

In the next few days, Sam and I will begin our second season of Interactive Friction. But before we do that, we thought it would be nice if we wrapped up a few loose ends surrounding Far Cry 3

What Blood Dragon really demonstrates is how fun the core mechanics of Far Cry 3 can be when the developers just let loose and have fun with the whole thing. Unlike vanilla Far Cry 3, Blood Dragon has a lot of heart behind it, even if it does have parts where it falls flat on its face.

Stylistically, the game does well by invoking the style of a bygone era. I love the color palette this game chose to use, because it stands out among many of the other games, The whole glowing-things aesthetic also provides contrast with other games.

There are also a lot of design decisions that are really nice. Since this is a smaller game, it makes sense to unlock many of the skills that took Jason so long to get at the start of the game. The linear leveling system helps avoid bogging down the player with choices that aren't that important. All sorts of other minor details really give it its own style.

The rest of our commentary stands out on its own, so I'll let the video speak for itself.

Before we close, I would like to make an announcement. Season 2 of Interactive Friction will be posted on Monday, March 16, 2015. The game we will be playing is....

A Let's Play Series is born! Welcome to Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider!

The Texture Pop: Episode 31: Why Can't We Just Be Mage Bros

This week is an interesting recording session. Chris could not make it, because he has a new job. The rest of us, however, were more than able to make it. Since it was such a weird week, the podcast was posted pretty late. On behalf of the cast, I would like to apologize to you, the viewers.

0:00:50 Viewer Questions
"What do you think of Anita Sarkeesian's 8 point suggestions?"
Turns out I was wrong about when this came out, because I found an article talking about it as of the time of writing.
At the time of the recording, none of us saw this particular talk, so we tried to get away with discussing this in the general sense.
Now that I have read those points, I don't see the issue with any of them. They make logical sense and the problems they address are real problems.
One of the throughlines I see repeated in comments to these points, and other issues raised by Sarkeesian, is that they tend to think that she wants to apply these points to all games. That is not true. What she wants developers to consider these suggestions and try to incorporate them more often. I also want to point out that the only angry comments we have ever gotten on this show came from the one episode where we defended Anita Sarkeesian when GamerGate was still a thing people cared about.

"What games are you guys looking forward to in the next few months?"
I was pretty nervous when this game came up, because I honestly could not think of anything on the top of my head. We're still in this initial rut brought about by the dawn of new gaming consoles. As a result, the number of new titles, at least in the AAA space, that have my interest is small.

0:18:50 Gaming News
Steam Machines/Controller announcements
The thing about the Steam controller is that it is basically trying to make the keyboard and mouse more viable for a home theater setup. Honestly, I'm not sure how many game will benefit from such a device. Maybe it's just me, but I am fine with the idea of having a KB & M on my lap as I play.
As for the machines themselves, I'm not sure who the target market for them is. For most people, they are better off just upgrading their PCs and home theater setups at the price these machines cost. Even at the lower end, a gaming console is about as good and easier to add to whatever setup you have.

Maxis is shut down by EA.
I don't think anyone is surprised by this announcement, but to do this at the same time GDC is going on is a little painful. EA has been on people's shit list for a long time because of this behavior, so I doubt it will change.

0:27:10 I played a new little game called Hand of Fate.
I have slowly, gradually begun to love this little game. As an aspiring game designer, I think the way it combined so many different mechanics into a cohesive whole is brilliant. It's difficult to explain, but immediate obvious when you start to play and/or watch someone else play.
Just be warned that there are technical issues in the game. It's not perfect, but it's good.

0:35:35 I played Dragon Age 2.
I don't hate the game, but it does have its flaws.
The biggest problem is honestly the combat. I am getting so tired of all the waves and waves of enemies. What I would have done to improve the game is to give each enemy group a leader, with significantly higher stats than the others. Once the leader falls, than the other units will retreat.
Also, Carver and Anders are some of the most irritating people I've ever had in an RPG party. The game isn't the best thing I've ever played, but it's not bad. I can see how fans of Dragon Age could not like it.
I didn't mention it in the cast, but I had a huge problem at first because it felt like I was just doing nothing but sidequests. As the game went on, the game evolved from that, and I began to like it a lot more.

0:53:10 Sam tried a PS2 emulator.
And we had a pretty good conversation about old PS2 games, regional differences, and how different regions respond better or worse to different stimuli.
The Nier comparison shots of the Japanese vs. North American protagonist can be best show off with this image.

0:59:51 Sam got a PS4.
We kinda go rapid-fire through the games he purchases with it.
The other big discussion involves graphics and how technology is improving.

1:10:30 Sam played inFamous: Second Son.
I know we talked a lot about it when I played the games, but I was nice to talk with Sam about it, since he now has the experience that I have from playing.

1:30:30 Garrett talks about his week.
In this segment, we cover:

  • Five Nights at Freddy's 
  • League of Legends 
  • voice acting 
  • music 
  • Cards Against Humanity 
  • shoes 
  • Campbell's soup and other foods 
  • CSI 
  • Hotline Miami 2
  • alcohol
  • watching other people sleep on Skype?
  • consumption of meat

1:59:55 We talk about game engines.
The recent news that Unreal 4 and Source 2 will be free inspired this conversation. For guys like Garrett and myself, who are aspiring game designers, this is a huge boon.
We get into a side conversation about Watch_Dogs and how terrible it was.

2:13:30 Wrapping Up
My Outlast article is here.
Interactive Friction: Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is here.

Impressions #28: Far Cry 4

By the time this piece is published, I will have already completed Interactive Friction's season of Far Cry 3. When taken with my article comparing it to Wolfenstein: The New Order, my opinions of that game cannot be made any more clear. That said, I have always had a fascination with Ubisoft's products. They always manage to make enough good and bad decisions that excellent conversation can be had. Though I have many complaints regarding Far Cry 3, I enjoyed it enough to purchase and play the sequel. This week, we will discuss Far Cry 4.

Those who played Far Cry 3 will find themselves right at home. In that respect, the game is fairly iterative. Players take a trip to an exotic landscape that would feel at home in the pamphlet of a travel agency. Once there, they do the things that have become so deeply linked to the typical Ubisoft game. Enjoying the fight against hordes of nameless, faceless soldiers, climbing towers, conquering outposts, and hunting animals and collectibles are all the order of the day here. Nobody should be particularly surprised by this. In this way, the game is just as derivative as one can expect. The fundamental gameplay loop is the same, with no real big changes occurring. Because of this, most gameplay-related criticisms that have been made of a AAA-game published by Ubisoft in recent years could be levied towards Far Cry 4 and be just as accurate.

What distinguishes Far Cry 4 from the rest of Ubisoft's big games are smaller, less visible changes. The game is less of a unique title in the lineup and more of a refinement of the formula that has been used repeatedly for the past few years. Some of these updates are a step up, while others have more mixed results. Exploration in particular has been vastly improved for this sequel, with the new helicopter allows for more freedom and verticality when traveling around the map. Even without it, the wingsuit from the previous game can be purchased very early on, which allows the player to safely jump off of high cliffs and move huge distances. Autodrive even removes the tedium of driving from waypoint to waypoint in order to get to different objectives.

The story is also much more bearable than what was present for Far Cry 3. Unfortunately, it is not because of the characters the player will spend most of their time interacting with. Honestly, most of the major characters come off as either one note or bland. Despite my intense loathing of Jason Brody, at least he does have some character, if not a great one. Far Cry 4's lead character, Ajay Ghale, is a blank slate. He comes to the fictional country of Kyrat in order to burying his mother's ashes there, completing her dying wish, getting swept up into the politics surrounding the region. Taken by Pagan Min, the king of this nation, Ajay soon finds himself rescued and recruited into the Golden Path, who oppose his rule.
The Golden Path is headed by two people. Sabal, the man who rescues Ajay from Pagan Min, believes that sticking to old customs and traditions, including the status of woman as second-class citizens. Counter to his ideals is Amita, who wishes to abandon tradition and take a more progress stance towards Kyrat's future, funding it primarily through the trade of illegal drugs and narcotics. As the third man, Ajay is often forced to make binary moral choices in support of one person's plans over the others. I found the whole affair painfully dull. Although they are the two characters that players interact with more than any other, they are the least interesting part of the entire game. There is simply nothing else to those two aside from their chosen stances on how Kyrat should be ruled. One could even make a drinking game out of the number of times Sabal uses the word “tradition” in his dialogue. As the player avatar, Ajay is robbed of whatever chance he had of decent characterization because of this dynamic of being the mediator between two uninteresting paths.

And that is a real shame, because the rest of the supporting cast is much more interesting. First and foremost, the chief antagonist, Pagan Min, steals the show whenever he is on screen. Voiced by Troy Baker, Pagan is very clearly aware of his role in the plot. He chews the scenery in every appearance, which is why he ultimately comes off as strangely likable compared to the other characters in the cast. Min is the bad guy. He knows it and is willing to let loose and have fun with it. Regrettably, the man only makes a scant few appearances in a plot which is, at least in theory, all about taking down his regime. The plot twist regarding his history with Ajay's parents also recontextualizes the main campaign in a way that is oddly self-aware, to the point where one could say it openly mocks the video game conventions that the rest of the plot takes for granted. Even if he is not Vaas, and does not make many appearances, the game is made better for his character.
Most of the side-quests are given to the player through characters with unique views and idiosyncrasies. The quests to hunt legendary animals for the game's carrying cases is delivered to Ajay by a fashion designer who believes that garments can only be truly beautiful if they are practical as they are stylish. A radio DJ with a tendency to just say whatever inane thoughts come to mind gives the player the side objective of shutting down Pagan Min's propaganda centers. The local weapons dealer is also a missionary who needs someone to help him atone for his past crimes by killing the people who still commit them and reclaiming their ill-gotten goods. Not only do these characters entertain the player, but they also serve to contextualize many of the side-missions in a way that Far Cry 3 never really did aside from the radio towers and outposts. I understood more clearly in this game why my character would have a vested interest in going out of his way to do these things, and the side-cast was instrumental in that.

Which is great, because those smaller characters are part of what make Kyrat such an interesting playground. The other big draw is the land itself. Taking a helicopter and flying high over the terrain reveals impressive and beautiful vistas. Though I am not one for graphics, there is no denying that these moments make the game look fantastic. The nation also has a very interesting and well-written backstory, especially when compared to the islands from Far Cry 3. Ajay's parents, the previous king, Pagan Min, and the Golden Path all have detailed and rich histories with each other, which helped flavor the game so that it felt like players were in a living, breathing place. Kyrat is as much a character as the rest of the game is.

Unfortunately, despite the praise I have for the game, I do have one serious complaint. Somebody at Ubisoft needs a stern talking to with regards to collectibles, because the sheer amount of them in this game is absurd. Some of them, specifically the letters from an 18th century explorer and pages from the journal of Ajay's father, provide interesting reasons to explore the world by giving the player stories to discover. However, the rest of the collectibles are pointless. They consist of spinning wheels, shooting evil(?) masks, and tearing down propaganda posters. Not only are the reasons for doing these activities unclear, but there are so many things to collect that most of the game's roughly 40 hour playtime comes exclusively from these innocuous trinkets. The propaganda posters are particular egregious because there are an excessive 150 scattered throughout the game. Eventually, someone at Ubisoft is going to wizen up to the fact that artificially injecting length with pointless collectibles does not make gathering them up fun. This revelation will sadly come too late to help Far Cry 4.

Far Cry 4 is, for better or worse, an upgraded Far Cry 3. If you enjoyed that game, you are going to enjoy this one. It is very similar in terms of how it plays, and the new location offers a bit more freedom in how players explore the world. What sets it apart mostly is how much more self-aware the writers of this game seemed to be compared to the writers of the previous game. Despite using similar tropes, this new awareness makes the plot a lot more tolerable, even humorous, than it otherwise would have been. That said, if Ubisoft's standard formula for AAA games has begun to wear you down, Far Cry 4 is not going to do you any favors. It is a good game and a fun experience, but you have to be aware of that before you dive in.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Impressions #27: Outlast

Out of curiosity, I decided to try out this whole “scary game” thing again. With Dead Space 2 and Dead Space 3 out of the way, “horror” games are apparently something I do now. For this reason, and sheer curiosity, I decided to try out Outlast. Originally released on PC in 2013, moving to consoles almost a year later, Outlast is an indie-developed survival horror game. Developed by Red Barrels, the game chronicles the adventure of journalist Miles Upshur. Armed with only a notepad and a camcorder, he investigates a tip about an insane asylum doing unethical experiments. This week, I discuss how it both succeeds and fails its intended audience.

As the game began, I admit that it scared me in a number of ways. The initial scenes all to their best to set an atmosphere of creepiness. The tension runs high and, while I was aware that eventually I was going to get scared, I did not know in exactly what way. For a fairly long stretch, the game built tension without attempting to cache it out. It is subtle in the way that it began to unsettle me in those opening scenes. When the scares finally began to happen, that tension amplified them beyond what would be normally expected.
Unfortunately, the horror began to fade quickly the further I progressed. The game tried to give the player a brief reprieve every chapter, in order to help restore tension between encounters. Sadly, none of them are as long as that first moment. Furthermore, they grow shorter and shorter with each successive chapter. Without that tension, it just never gets as scary those initial scenes. Events are no less disturbing, and remain gruesome throughout, but the illusion of danger fades along with the suspense. Compounded by the predictability of the encounters, horror is the first feeling to get invited, but leaves before the party is over.

Fortunately, the game offers more than just that. Even when the horror fades, there is a noticeable thrill in the act of playing the game. This is because the protagonist cannot confront enemies. He has no combat ability, so in a straight up fight against the insane asylum patients will result in a swift and painful death. In order to stay alive, he has to either hide, stay out of sight, or run circles around them to get to his objectives and get out.
This means that there are generally two strategies when going through one of these encounters. The first one is a bit more slow and methodical, along the lines of a traditional stealth game. Players slowly move about in the shadows, watching inmate movements and trying to stay out of sight. Hiding under beds or in old, rusty lockers can help facilitate this idea. Since the protagonist's camcorder has a nightvision mode built in, the player has a slight advantage in that he can see better than his pursuers. In the ideal world, the player will be able to find whatever item they need to precede, usually a key or something, and get out before any is the wiser.
But, that rarely ever happens. As a result, most players will inevitably shift to the other possible strategy. That is, they will run as fast as they possibly can. Since there is no stamina bar, no penalty will in incurred for just sprinting aside from all the noise that is generated. Even more fortunately, Miles Upshur runs faster than most of the enemies in the game. This makes it entirely possible to just rush through a given segment by sprinting through the level, gathering everything needed before the inmates even get a chance to blink. Once players realize that most enemies will take 4 hits to kill Miles, 2 for stronger ones, this tactic becomes more viable. After all, it is perfectly acceptable to take a few hits while sprinting. Even if things get bad, it is easy to break line of sight and hide in a locker to recover for a bit. This is part of why the game gets less scary, but just narrowly escaping a powerful foe by outwitting him is exactly why it becomes more of a thriller.

There are also a number of collectibles scattered throughout the game. By recording events with the camcorder, players can unlock notes detailing the protagonist's opinions on the events of the plot. Documents located in various places also provide detail regarding the purpose of the asylum. Lastly, since using nightvision requires charge (but not the act of simply using the camera normally), the player can collect and store up to 10 batteries to reload into the camera and restore charge. The notes and documents provide some mildly interesting reading, even if the story is fairly forgettable in and of itself. On the other hand, the batteries can be fairly scarce, particularly in the early game, so picking them up will be almost required.

Speaking of the story, it is very bland. You, the reader, probably groaned at the premise that I mentioned at the start of this article. Honestly, it does not get much better than that. If you have watched a movie, you can predict the twists and turned that you will encounter in the story. None of it is bad. However, nothing stands out from other, more well-known pieces of horror-themed fiction. Secret government experiments, horrible mutations, evil ghosts/monsters, and other devices have all been used before. This is also true of the the trope of the intrepid reporter risking his life for a major scoop. Though players will get through the game, it will not be at the forefront of their minds once they finish.

That can almost be said for the game itself. It is fun to play, and does its job. However, it does not do enough to stand out among its contemporaries in the horror genre. After beating it once, it is highly unlikely that it will be remembered for long. As a smaller, more independent game, this can forgiven. I would even recommend a playthrough for people who are desperate for a horror fix. With that in mind, most people will not be losing much if they skip out on it. Though good, it is not great and the players who are likely to enjoy are just as likely to have played better.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Texture Pop: Episode 30: A Very Bad Case of Melanoma

So, we here at The Texture Pop have begun to make an earnest attempt to reduce the overall length of our podcasts to more manageable levels. I know I have said this before, several times, but I believe that we can stick to it this time.

Also, we did not receive any viewer questions this week. If have any questions, comments, or thoughts for us, feel free to send them our way at

0:02:30 The only piece of news this week.
Leonard Nimoy has passed away.
I think I can speak for many people when I say that he will be missed. He's made many contributions to the world through what he's done and the roles he's played. Few people can claim to live a life as full as his, so we took the time to acknowledge that in this segment.

0:06:50 Garrett plays League, reads books, has a birthday, and hangs out with friends.
And this all happens in the span of a few minutes.
Also, I just realized that the new League of Legends character Garrett was talking about has a Kabuki mask. That's the word we spent so much time not thinking of.

0:17:00 Chris talks about an anime fighting game.
And Sam is just enthralled by it. I'll be honest, I mostly zoned out until Chris said "Yu Narukami" and/or "Persona."
I just wish talking about the game didn't involve the word "inbirth." I'm not entirely sure why, but that just doesn't sound right.

0:30:20 Chris talks about buying Dragon's Dogma.
And hilarity ensues. At least he was able to see the silver lining and use his misfortune to his favor. All's well the end's well.

0:32:50 I finished Far Cry 4. *spoiler*
I have an article due soon on Far Cry 4. As a result, I will let the conversation here stand.
It's a good game, and better than it's predecessor, but I don't think Ubisoft can keep producing Ubisoft: The Game for much longer. The formula is growing stale. I just don't think that it's sustainable.

0:46:25 I finished Resident Evil 5: Gold Edition
There were parts of the game I enjoyed. As a whole though, the game isn't really that great. It is only worth playing if you need an excuse to hang out with a friend.

0:54:50 I played more Muramasa DLC.
Still worth it.

0:57:40 Sam played Resident Evil Revelations 2: Episode 1.
It's a shame the first episode wasn't that great. Still, it's hard to talk about games like this until more episodes get released.

1:10:50 Sam played Nosgoth.
And (successfully) attempts to convince us to install it so that we can all play together.
While the game sounds really good, I am almost immediately put off by the nature of the microtransactions. In short, those prices are way too high. Still, I love asymmetric multiplayer, so I would say it's probably worth trying out.

1:22:55 Sam picked up Ranma 1/2.
I've heard of it, but never read it. Seems a little too out there for me.

1:26:00 Wrapping Up
Remember, you can send us stuff at
Sam's Saya no Uta article is here.
My Final Fantasy VI piece is here.