Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Texture Pop: Episode 38: The FUSE Experience

0:02:19 Viewer Question
What would be your ideal Star Wars game?
This was written in lieu of the trailers of both the new Battlefront game and Episode 7. Also, I need to make clear that Star Wars is not a franchise that appeals to me, so if my opinions are seen as heretical to fans, it's not something I can help. This is in regards to both the movie and game discussions.

And remember, if you have questions and/or comments that you'd like us to read on the air, you can do so at

0:21:15 Gaming News
Skyrim allowed paid mods on Steam.
For the record, we recorded this podcast on Sunday. By the time of this writing, paid Skyrim mods have been removed. So I kinda have to put my foot in my mouth regards to the apocalyptic tone expressed during this segment. Still, I stand behind the opinions expressed on this subject. It's a well-meaning idea, but Valve didn't really think too much about what the implications were behind such a massive, overnight change.

0:39:55 Garrett talks about his week.

1:03:00 Sam sells furniture (and reads The Fault in Our Stars)
As someone who follows John Green online, I really need to start reading his books. They seem like they'd be right up my alley.

1:09:40 Sam played portable games (while selling furniture)
In particular, he played Muramasa: Rebirth, Persona Q, and Crimson Shroud.
It's nice to hear Sam make similar criticisms that I made when I played Persona Q. I even wrote an article about it way back when.

1:21:00 Sam got into Monster Hunter and God Eater: Burst
As our resident Dark Souls player, I'm not really surprised these games would interest him.

1:34:50 I finished Pillars of Eternity.
It's like Baldur's Gate 2, but without all of the stuff that makes me hate Baldur's Gate 2.

1:46:00 I watched Dollhouse by Joss Whedon
It's a darkly interesting series. Though only 2 seasons long, it did more than many other shows have managed in 5 seasons.

1:50:00 Sam, Chris, one of my friends, and I played Insomniac Game's FUSE
Dear god, that game. We're going to keep going, but it's going to be painful.

2:09:00 Chris played more South Park: The Stick of Truth

2:22:50 Wrapping Up

Saturday, April 25, 2015

#87: Pillars of Eternity: New Solutions to Old Problems

On numerous occasions, I have cited a dislike of most of the old Infinity Engine RPGs. In particular, Baldur's Gate and its sequel were not very enjoyable. If not for my prior experience with their contemporaries, like Planescape: Torment and the early Fallout games, it would have been extremely tempting to swear myself off of the genre entirely. However, the recent renaissance of cRPGs, from Shadowrun Returns and Wasteland 2 to the upcoming Torment: Tides of Numeria, has brought a new perspective. Recently, Obsidian released Pillars of Eternity, which used those classics as inspiration. In doing so, it highlights many of their problems and proposes some interesting solutions to solving them.

The most obvious improvements Pillars of Eternity made to the systems of its predecessors are in the UI. None of them are major changes, but they all fix some of the more legendary problems that Baldur's Gate and its sequel were notorious for. For example, almost anyone who played those games will recoil in horror if one tells them that “you must gather your party before venturing forth.” Because of how slow characters moved, players could spend upwards to several minutes getting every single member of their group to the exit so that they can transition to the next area. Though that may not seem like a lot of time, when compounded over the sheer number of area changes, it is possible to spend hours in in-game time just waiting for the party to get into position. Should enemies still remain on the map, it will even be necessary to manually guide the party to the exit, else they will accidentally walk straight into battles, further slowing process down. The sheer tediousness of this exercise was, at my most charitable, mind-numbing to the extreme.
Pillars of Eternity fixes this issue in two ways. Although it stills used the memetic phrase, the game will automatically begin the process of bringing every party member to the point of transition the moment the player attempts to move to the next location, saving them from tediously selecting each member and moving them manually. On top of that, there is a “fast-movement” mode players can enable to accelerate the flow of time, minimizing the real-world wait for the party to gather. Though this is far from the only example of such improvements, it serves as a good demonstration of how Pillars of Eternity opted to do more than just reiterate old mechanics without considering how they may be improved.

Another major difference between Baldur's Gate and Pillars of Eternity was in the fighting. Back in the old days, Baldur's Gate utilized a Real Time with Pause combat system. This meant that characters theoretically acted in real time, requiring players to pause the action in order to coordinate tactics, but upon closer inspection reveals this is not entirely true. Though allies and enemies will only act with the passage of time, in truth the game utilizes turn-based mechanics under the hood. During long, protracted fights, I began to notice that my party and the opposition were repeated launching spells and attacks in the same order, no unit acting while another was in the middle of their own move. Baldur's Gate 2 makes this even more obvious by giving players the option to auto-pause the game after each round of combat.
In terms of play, this uncomfortable blend of turn-based play and real time combat offers the worse of both worlds. Turn-based mechanics work because they allow players to take their time and make meaningful, tactical decisions. Without the threat of enemies attacking, it is possible to better consider all possible options before the enemy gets their turn. On the other hand, real time systems focus on the moment-to-moment action. These systems are often built to test quick-thinking and reflex, the goal being to make smart decisions and act on them swiftly. Tactics are important, but they not as strongly emphasized.
With the way Baldur's Gate combined the aspects of these two design philosophies, players have the slow speed of a turn-based game with the need to reflexively, quickly pause after every single action in order to avoid giving away any advantage. Many time in the game, I found that if I did not pause after an enemy attack, my cleric might either launch a low-damage attack, or worst, do nothing at all. When several characters require immediate healing, this often spelled the difference between success and failure.
Pillars of Eternity fixes this in two ways. Instead of a rigid turn/round system, the game relies on cooldowns between attacks. Characters with lighter equipment and/or greater speed will be able to act faster and more frequently than their slower counterparts. Not only does this make party and equipment setups more interesting, but it solves the problem where players are using real time thinking and reflexes on a fundamentally turn-based system. An extremely robust array of auto-pause options also serves to benefit this system. By enabling them, players can force the game to pause on specific events like one character finishing an ability, getting low on health, or even something as simple as the start of a battle. As a result, players can rely on the game handling that aspect on its own, meaning they can focus on the action without having a thumb over the Space Bar at all times.

The balance of short-term versus long-term resource management is also different between the two games. As is the case with most RPGs, Baldur's Gate gives each character a set number of hit points. Once those hit points reach zero, they are killed unless a resurrection spell brings them back to life. In order to recover from damage, players could either use healing magic, or allocate time to resting in a place where no enemies are lurking. Theoretically, this meant that players could spend as much time as they wanted in the wilderness, before heading back into town. So long as they continuously found safe locations, or cleared out areas, any health could simply be recovered by resting. The only potential long-term consequences to doing so are inventory space and party member death. Because of this, battles were either be a total blowout or extreme tough, without any middle ground. Whenever one of those tough battles is finished, resting also became the only logical option so that the party can recover.
Pillars of Eternity uses a different system. Each party member has two pools which get used in battle. Like any other game, each character has health, with represents long-term damage. However, Endurance is another statistic that comes into play. Acting as a shield of sorts, Endurance will soak up most, but not all, of the damage during a fight and is restored at the end of a battle. Should it ever reach zero, the character is knocked out, unable to participate in the fight any longer. Should their health instead drop to zero, they are permanently killed off. This allowed Obsidian to balance each fight so that it will pose a good challenge to a reasonably-leveled party, while also limiting the overall impact of any single engagement on the player's long-term survivability.
Health is completely restored on rest, just like in Baldur's Gate. However, this is balanced by the fact that resting outside of an inn costs a camping set. At any given time, only six camping sets can be in the player's inventory, meaning that their supply will always be limited. The difficulty is in balancing the desire to travel around and complete quests with the necessity to conserve supplies and visit town in order to restock. After fighting a series of battles, finding that the party is tired, health running low, the game always tempts the player to see if they willing to go for one more battle without rest in order to best conserve their inventory. Unlike Baldur's Gate, the decision of when to rest and when not to rest becomes just as much of a tactical choice then anything other combat-related decision.

Pillars of Eternity is not just a loving tribute to Baldur's Gate. Rather, it is a modern take on the game design principles inherent to the old school cRPGs of that era. Given this lens, it is easy to see how Obsidian was able to improve upon those old systems and create something new from them. I am happy this genre is making a comeback. With all that has been learned in the time since the era of Baldur's Gate, there is huge potential for this genre to develop more than it ever could have in its heyday.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Texture Pop: Episode 37: Alien Dildos

Sam and Garrett were unable to join us for this episode for various reasons. (You know how it is with various reasons.) So, Chris and I held the fort.

Also, we still don't have any viewer questions. If you would like to submit a question or comment to be read on the air, please send it to

0:01:30 Gaming News
Gamespot to Experiment with Retro Games
Like most of these types of news stories, it is hard to say how good/bad it is until after the changes get implemented.

Mortal Kombat's First Canonically Gay Character
I'm still waiting for the day that news like this is no longer a big deal. Until then, it's always nice to be a little more inclusive.

The Unity Engine Now Supports the 3DS and 3DS XL
Given now Nintendo doesn't often support smaller devs, so this is a good move. Considering how badly the company flubs in other areas, this is well-needed PR.

0:18:55 I got a new laptop.
The old one was about 4 years old now, so honestly I'm more than due for an upgrade. Still, that doesn't mean that I was particularly happy about shelling out $650 for a new system. Ah well, one must make lemonade out of lemons, as they say.

0:23:50 I linked an article on Reddit, and then Kotaku linked to it.
The Reddit link is here, and the Kotaku link is here.
Needless to say, it may me really happy.

0:27:50 I finished a lot of Joss Whedon's old TV shows this week.
I've been gradually chipping away and both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel, for a number of months now. Since Firefly was only 13 episodes, and my laptop was out of commission, so watching it on my PS4 was really one of the only sensible uses of my time.
I enjoyed all of those shows, and Joss Whedon's writing is top notch. Like I said in the podcast, his dialog feels very natural. Also, he's very self-aware of the tropes and cliches that he is both using and subverting.
As an aside, it's funny to see Chris fumble in a conversation about TV shows.

We also talk about the act of TV watching in the general sense in this segment.

0:43:30 Chris played South Park: The Stick of Truth.
And we somehow got a full 20 minutes worth of conversation about it, despite my complete disinterest in South Park.

1:05:00 Wrapping up.
Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013) is now complete. You can see the whole season here.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013): Episode 15: (long, sharp, death scream)

With this, Interactive Friction has now complete two different games. As a result, it is now the most successful Let's Play project I have ever worked on. I hope Sam and I can continue this for years to come, especially with what we have planned for future seasons.

In this episode, Sam makes a very interesting suggestion: This game may have been better off if we cut out a lot of Lara's supporting cast and make it a more personal tale by only having a small cast of primary characters. If we cut down the cast to Lara, Roth, Sam, and Mathias, we may have been able to better focus the tale around her personal growth.

These four characters are really the only ones that are core to the plot. Without any one of them, the game would be lesser. Unfortunately, the rest of the survivors from The Endurance do not add much to this game's story at the very least. (Time will tell if they become more important in later games, but that's irrelevant to our conversation.)

The other interesting thing about Roth, Sam, and Mathias is that there is a lot of interesting interplay that could come from focusing on this smaller cast. They all represent some aspect of Lara's character. Sam is the innocent girl that Lara starts out as in the story. Mathias demonstrates the kind will and cunning required in order to survive the island and its trials. As the mentor, Roth shows how these two can be balanced to stay alive without losing one's basic humanity. In the vein of classic Freudian psychology, they could represent the ego, id, and superego respectively.

As for the ending of the game, it lacks any sort of subtlety whatsoever. I honestly felt a little pandered to, because it felt like the didn't trust me to understand what they were obviously going for. Still, the game did so well up to that point that it works well enough to finish out the campaign.

Then they bring up that Lara's dad died while exploring paranormal phenomena of some kind. I'm not against that kind of sequel bait, because the story in this game does get a satisfying conclusion. However, it would have made more sense and felt less like bait if it brought up at the start and expanded throughout the game.

Thank you, listeners, for staying with us for this second season of Interactive Friction. We will be taking a brief hiatus for now, but stay tuned for Season 3. This show is far from done.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Texture Pop: Episode 36: All About the Vapes

First off, I'd like to apologize for the complete lack of annotations for last week's podcast. A lot went on last week, so I wasn't able to get them done.

We're also changing things up on the podcast front. Sam's getting busier and busier with all of his side projects, so from now on Chris will be taking responsibility for the act of hosting, editing, and publishing the podcast.

The other big change was the use of Mumble. Previous episode were recorded over Skype. With Mumble, we hope that uncompressed audio will make the listening experience more pleasant. We still have some kinks to work out, but it sounds a lot better.

Lastly, we still have no viewer questions. If you would like to submit a question, comment, or something you'd like read on the air, send us an e-mail at

0:02:15 Gaming News
New Deus Ex game: Mankind Divided.
I'm really excited for it. Human Revolution was a great game, and I have a feeling I will enjoy going back to that world.

The Tomb Raider reboot is the best-selling game in the franchise... ever.
Take that, Square-Enix circa 2013.

0:15:25 Sam played Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin
And he tells us a bit about how different it feels from the point of view of a chronic Dark Souls-player.

0:23:30 Sam played DMC: Devil May Cry: Definitive Edition
It seems like the fact that all four of us liked the reboot is a bit of an anomaly. It's really not a bad game, and the new edition seems to address most of my complaints about the original version, including some of the more objectionable jokes.

0:39:00 Garrett attends the East Coast Gaming Conference (ECGC)
It was really to hear him talk about it. I would love to attend such a conference in the future, when finances allow.

0:50:50 Garrett purchased a Vape.
Which gets us talking about drugs and cigarettes.

0:56:55 I finished Final Fantasy 3.
I noticed as I was saying it in this episode, but there are a lot of RPGs that I loved until the ending. RPGs don't do endings very well.

1:02:00 I played Pillars of Eternity.
I've really enjoyed my playthrough thus far. It does well to pay homage to old games like Baldur's Gate, without duplicating a lot of the big problems of those games. A good fusion of old and new mechanics.

1:19:00 Chris played more Dragonball: Xenoverse
And we're still not sure if he likes it or not.

1:34:15 Wrapping Up.
Remember to write to us at
My Dragon Age: Inquisition article is here.
Also, my new comment is unveiled, which you can interact with at the bottom of this very post, among others.
And, of course, Interactive Friction is almost finished with it's second season, which you can see here.

Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013): Episode 14: (Speaking Japanese)

In this episode, Lara is (of course), on her own against hordes of evil Japanese soldiers.

Since we're coming up to the finale, I think it's time to talk a little about the supernatural stuff in the game. Like its contemporaries in Indiana Jones and Uncharted, Tomb Raider incorporates the paranormal into its story.

As we have seen in the playthrough, Himiko is always an influence in the plot. She is what is preventing anyone from leaving the island, by using the storm to crash any incoming and outgoing vessels. Now, we see immortal Japanese warriors fighting to defend their queen. If any doubts still existed at this point, they will be quelled at the finale.

What I would have liked more in this story is for the existence of the supernatural to be more ambiguous. One of my favorite tropes in fiction is whether not spooky happenings are truly paranormal in nature, or a complete coincidence. As someone who watched The X-Files, my biggest criticism of the show was that there was almost never any mystery as to whether or not supernatural forces were at work. As the audience, we know that some monster is at work, which makes Scully's skepticism seem unreasonable. It would be more interesting if there was enough leeway to allow for both interpretations, with evidence of the paranormal being easily explained away or circumstantial at best.

The same problem exists here as well. We're given so much evidence that Himiko is real and truly the one behind everything that any skepticism from the supporting cast comes off as remarkably flimsy. It would do more for both them and Lara's character if there was less certainty as to whether or not there were supernatural occurrences. That small room for doubt would make for some really interesting play between Lara and both her friends and the player.

To me, it seems like a missed opportunity.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013): Episode 13: Revelations

In this episode, Sam reveals a startling fact that leaves me absolutely stunned.

Not much of note happened in this episode. However, we did discuss a little bit about level design. This section of the game both demonstrates an area of good level design, and of poor level design.

The first it that platforming section at the start of the episode. As Sam points out, there is a very obvious sense of progression as the player ascends. Furthermore, the camera keeps the goal in view, so that it is clear where players are supposed to go. Lastly, it gives us opportunities to take advantage of the new pulley we obtained, by letting us traverse ziplines faster and pull heavy objects toward us.

On the other hand, the arena in the middle of the video does not play to the strengths of Tomb Raider (2013)'s combat. Though it looks like a plausible area, which it should be commended for, it is not terrible fun to play in. Like most cover-based shooter, Tomb Raider's central mechanic is taking cover and avoiding damage in order to recover from injuries. Given that the arena's only form of cover is the staircase in the center, this makes players significantly more vulnerable than they are in other parts of the game. This is doubly confusing since we're now in the portion of the game where Lara is supposed to feel empowered.

The other problem with that arena is that the number of enemies is not really scaled to the size and lack of cover. I felt almost claustrophobic during the ambush, because I could not get away from the fray in order to heal up.

The Tomb Raider Season will be finish this week if all goes according to plan. We already have our next season in mind. As for what that is, you'll have to stay tuned in order to find out.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

#86: Dragon Age: Inquisition (A New Design)

As someone who normally balances college, a part-time job, and a hobby as a game critic, it has become more and more difficult to dedicate large chunks of time to long, hundred-hour epics. Time is a precious commodity, so signing onto lengthy campaigns can be a lot to ask for. When Dragon Age: Inquisition touted a playtime of over 100 hours, I was not too happy to hear it. After buying, playing, and beating the game, my opinion more mixed than I was expecting. It makes an interesting series of design choices, demonstrating a new philosophy for Bioware; one that I am still unsure what I think of.

One of these choices was to utilize mechanics typically associated with free-to-play, microtransaction laden game, without actually including said microtransactions. As the head of an organization dedicated to restoring peace and order, the player character has several advisors. Each member of this war counsel has their own specialties: They consist of the chief ambassador, the spymaster, and commander of the army. At the war table, each one can be assigned a mission to undertake in the player's stead, which they will accomplish in a given period of time. The trick is that these missions do not take game time, instead relying on real-world time. Many of them take only an hour or less to complete, which fits perfectly into what should be a standard session. Others take several hours, even a day to two in the most extreme case. Assigning these operations fits neatly into the average person's schedule, subtly encouraging the player to take a break and/or do something else for a time.

On top of that, quest design has been noticeably simplified. Previous entries in the franchise had fairly involved missions, with their own more personal tales from ordinary people. While some of them could be quick, many could take an hour or more. This is not the case in Inquisition. Eschewing the questing philosophy of the other Dragon Age games, Inquisition aims for conciseness more than anything else. Any one side-mission is designed to be completely quickly, within the span of about 30 minutes or less.
Even the dungeons in Inquisition seem to be made with this shorter running time in mind. Dragon Age: Origins included old temples and ruins that would take several hours to explore, up to 6 or 7 in the most extreme cases like The Fade or The Deep Roads. Although these places took a long time to explore, so much of that time is padded out with long corridors and endless fighting, without much in the way of meaningful content, making it difficult to keep the player's interest. Often, it would take several play sessions to complete one of them, whereas Inquisition's various old manors, ancient sanctuaries, et cetera, were compact in their layouts. Taking no longer than 30 minutes to fully explore any one of them, the locations were just big enough to have something interesting occur, but not enough to spend large chunks of time.

Another appreciable change that occurred in the making of Dragon Age: Inquisition is the new “open-world” structure. Unlike games like Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto, Inquisition does not have one large, complete and dynamic area to explore. Instead, there are almost a dozen distinct, yet massive, zones of operation in which players can explore to their hearts content. Populated with the dungeons and quests mentioned above, along with a myriad of collectibles, these fields of play offer tons of things to do. Though it takes a lot time to complete everything in an area, one can quickly enter an area, find something to do, and complete it.

Lastly, character progression is not as fast as that of previous Dragon Age games. Unlike previous entries, Inquisition grants only a minor amount of experience when dispatching normal enemies. For example, at level 19, with a required 50000 XP to level up, a single soldier will only offer about 10 XP. Significant experience boosts, of 1000 XP or greater, will only be awarded when defeated strong monsters or completing quests. As a logical consequence, players advance more slowly than they ever have before in this series.

In a rush to play catch-up with everyone else, I binged for several days on Inquisition. However, as I sat on my notes and reflected upon the choices Bioware made for the game, I realized something: Bioware did not want me to squeeze 95 hours of play into my week off. In the context of the war table's subtle nudging to stop playing, bite-sized quests and dungeons, open-world design, and slow progression, it became clear that I was supposed to only play for an hour or so per day, over the span of months. In theory, I should be okay with this, since time is so hard to come by for many people who, like me, keep playing games as they start to mature into adulthood. To the game's credit, it largely succeeds at what it sets out to do. However, there were consequences to using this methodology, and I am not sure that Bioware's games are equipped to handle them.

Because of the focus on many faster, more compact quests, very few of them have the chance to leave an impression upon the player. Missions in Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2 all told stories about the people and places involved in them. Even if they did not tie-in to the main story, each one says something, however minor, about what life is like in the world of Thedas. It is only because Bioware decided to give each quest enough time to develop, no matter how long that way be, that this was possible.
Inquisition changes this dynamic. With the more streamlined quests, there does not exist enough time to fully develop any one in particular. The result is that there is a lot of surface-level content, tasks meant only to serve as a minor distraction. This lack of deeper content, which tells its own story and connects with the player, makes it much less likely for one to become invested into the world and the plot. I barely connected to the people I was meeting when roaming through these large areas. Like a Diablo game, they did little more than give me an opportunity to find more loot and crafting materials. Rather than people, they felt more to me like bulletin boards telling me where I can go get a new shiny sword and/or what I can find in order to make them give me a new shiny sword.

Bioware also failed to realize that style also ruins the pacing of the main campaign. Many people report spending significant amounts of time, typically around 10 to 15 hours, in the Hinterlands before moving on with the story. In fact, these anecdotes are so widespread that leaving the area as soon as possible is one of the most common PSAs to new players. It is very likely that players will end up working on completing places like The Hinterlands nearly to the exclusion of the main quest. Since many other such locations open up once the main plot gets underway, this temptation is always looming over the player. For my playthrough, I went over 20 hours without advancing the campaign by even a single quest, and this happened to me on two different occasions after my experience in the Hinterlands. My old completionist instincts, honed after years of gaming, worked against me. Even though I was fully aware that these quests were unimportant, and that I was beginning to grow disinterested, I kept plowing through the optional content. Sadly, my experience is far from unique.

I once wrote that Dragon Age: Origins did not respect my time, especially given the context of Dragon Age 2. Inquisition makes a different mistake. Although it clearly acknowledges that I have other things to do with my life, it does so without addressing the issue of undue focus on raw game length. Because of this error, the content is on display here is purely surface-level, lacking the depth that Bioware was known for even at their worst. Despite my Inquisition playthrough lasting nearly twice as long as my nearly complete journey through Origins, it was not anywhere near what one could consider to be comprehensive. I cannot claim that I was “burnt out,” but nor can I say that much of the what I experienced was particularly interesting outside of the decidedly few main missions. Inquisition is not Bioware's worst game, but nor is it memorable.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013): Episode 12: Pully in My Pocket

In this episode, we fight a video game boss battle. Also, a bad guy has a katana.

Since the subject came up in the episode, I think it'd be fun to talk a little bit about katanas. As I said, katanas aren't nearly as effective as fiction seems to think that they are. They're actually pretty bad compared to most other swords. (Disclaimer: I'm not a historian, or even a weapons expert. This is just knowledge gleamed from the internet and my own independent research.)

The myth of the katana originates, of course, from Japan. In that country, katanas were seen as status symbols. Forged from fairly low-grade iron, it took the work of a very skilled blacksmith to make a katana that would be viable in a combat situation. As a result, owning one meant that you were a person of well-enough repute to either afford one or have a wealthy noble pay to have one made. Either way, it marked you as a member of the upper-class.

But this is not the only reason the weapon achieved such a mythical status. In order to properly use a katana without subjecting it to the kind of undue wear and tear that could easily damage it, one needed to be highly trained in its use. No ordinary schmuck could wield a katana for long. Even a master-crafted one would need to well-maintained to sustain viability as a combat tool. For this reason, being trusted with a katana meant that you were not only a member of the upper-class, but also skilled enough to wield such a weapon. In a isolated country, such as Japan back in those times, this meant a great deal. When they eventually began trading with the west, it was only natural for such myths be traded as well.

Western swords are different. Not to say that the process of making a weapon is easy. If you look online, you'll see that there is a lot of work in making a sword. But because the materials available in western regions were better, it is easier by comparison for a blacksmith of any skill level to make a weapon that can do its job. Anyone could become an apprentice smith and gradually pick up the art. This comparatively lower barrier of entry meant that we didn't see swords as inherently mythical.

And because these weapons were easier to make, they were also easier to maintain. Again, it is mcuh easier to learn how to wield a western sword without damaging it than an eastern sword. Even should damage incur, it was not too difficult to pay a smith to replace the sword. Weapons in the west only became legendary because of what their wielders did with them, not because of any inherent properties or training of the wielders themselves. That's why even though western swords tended to be better weapons, Japanese swords are the ones seen as superior in fiction. Not a useful fact, but an interesting one.

Anyway, we were playing Tomb Raider.

I really appreciate the scene in the ship, where we call back to the intro of the game. It is a good way to bring into focus just how much Lara has had to change without overly saying it. The symbolism is perhaps a little too overt, but it is nonetheless a nice touch.

And Alex, how can we forget about Alex. We said as much in the last episode, but it feels weird for him to exist in this game, because Lara completely negates his character arc. They both start out as average people from an average life, but while Lara grows up and teaches herself how to survive in this situation, Alex becomes a victim. He tried to help, but fails to do anything more than get himself killed.

I suppose it is a nice touch that the woman isn't the victim in this game, but it just doesn't work for me. The other strange aspect is that his only contribution to the plot is to give Lara a secret admirer. In most stories, Alex would be the damsel-in-distress, the woman that the main male protagonist would be trying to save. In Tomb Raider, it's the reverse. Despite being the exact same thing, it feels so patronizing here, especially since we already have a damsel-in-distress (ie, Sam).

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013): Episode 11: Tomb Wader

In this episode, we go through the dumbest segment in the entire game.

The number of factors that have to align just right in order for this ship in the mist to exist on the island is great. Mathis's men need to first get motivated enough to want to build a ship. There are two big problems that would get in the way. First, they would need to spend most of their time finding food for their legion. Should that hurdle be passed, then the other problem is that nobody would see the point, since every ship that enters and leaves this island gets wreaked.

Assuming that we solve those problems and get enough motivated people to join the effort, how do they get enough materials in order to construct it? We barely gather enough scrap in our time here to build all of our weapon attachments. There are also dangers in gathering all of these materials from other crashed vessels.

On top of those problems, we also have the logistical problem of building that of high off the ground. What purpose does that serve? What factors would lead to the decision to make it so much further up than you'd ever need the ship to be?

And if all of THAT gets taken care of, and they managed to build the ship, why are they so eager to shoot it up in an effort to kill you? Is Lara that important that all of this clear effort can so casually be discarded? Are the people here that crazy that they'd abandon such a large project?

It doesn't make any sense. Not that it's a bad segment, but it just doesn't follow any stream of logic.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Site Update: Press Start to Disqus

Some of you might have already noticed that I have been doing some work on the site. The "Thing You Might Like" have been updated, a new page has been added for all of my Let's Plays, and ads have been enabled once more. Despite all of this, there has always been one area that this site struggles with.

Viewers have frequently told me that the comment system is terrible on this site. The system which Blogger uses by default is just not very good. I've lost count of the number of comments that have been forever lost to this site because someone forgot to add their e-mail to the comment before submitting it. Because of this, people stopped attempting to share their opinion, which goes against the whole purpose of this blog.

For the longest time, I didn't do anything about this. Since I had already had so much content on Blogger, switching to another service was impractical. Further, I had figured that it would eventually be addressed by the powers that be. Now, I have done something that will hopefully improve the state of affairs.

As of this moment, Press Start to Discuss will be using Disqus as the new comment management system. It solves the problem of Blogger "eating up" comments, and should hopefully be easy to manage. On top of that, it comes with it's own authentication system to thwart spammers in a non-intrusive manner.

For those who have commented on previous posts, worry not. All of the old comments have been imported into Disqus, so nothing was lost. In time, I hope these steps help fuel discussion on this blog, as I have always intended. For now, take care everyone.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013): Episode 10: As Good As It Gets

In this episode, we are relevant and topical for the first 5 minutes.

Many of the comments we make in this episode form the groundwork for suggestions and observations made in following episodes. Aside from that, most of it stand pretty well on it's own, and does not need to be elaborated on in the post.

It's inevitable that a Let's Play series will have an episode like this. It can't really be helped. Fortunately, with Sam's editing, we should keep this kind of commentary-lite to a minimum,

Saturday, April 4, 2015

#85: Valiant Hearts: The Great War (of Tone)

No matter what I seem to play from Ubisoft, whether I like it or hate it, there is always something worth talking about. With Valiant Hearts, the problem is not so much about quality. Though a good game, there exists an internal conflict regarding what messages players are supposed to take away from it. Some sections are clearly aiming for the tone of a pulpy adventure in the vein of a Micheal Bay movie or old propaganda films. A distinctly introspective, more melancholy tone is expressed in other areas of the game. This week, I want to detail how the game elicits these two opposing tones, and how they come into conflict with each other.
Released in June of 2014, Valiant Hearts: The Great War set out with the goal of delivering a tale about the First World War in a relatively unused way. Instead of relying on first/third-person shooting mechanics, the developers opted to utilize the in-house UbiArt engine, used to build 2D games like Rayman Origins and Child of Light, to make the 2D puzzle game out of it. Following the exploits of fictional people whose lives were directly impacted by the conflict, Valiant Hearts aimed to be more mature about its tale.

In many areas, they succeeded in this mission. Segments in the plot, particularly those surrounding Emile, an old man drafted into the French army, and Karl, his German son-in-law conscripted to fight into his national army, do their absolute best to explore how taxing World War I was on the families involved. While the two of them are off fighting in a war neither one has any true interest in, Emile's daughter and her child routinely send messages to the two of them telling them of her struggles on the homefront. There is even a more subtle emotional thread born from the knowledge that the two of them are being forced to fight against one another even though they have no real incentive to do so. This forms the central conflict of their arcs, as both men seek nothing more but to quit the war and return to their family.
Valiant Hearts also reinforces this more sorrowful line of reasoning through other means. As the player explores different locations over the course of the game, the pause menu builds up a collection of facts and pictures from the actual, real life war. The images depict great hardship, with the noticeably miserable faces of soldiers in very uncomfortable positions and conditions. From the muddy trenches, to the amputees, these help teach people about the circumstances that contextualize the game. Though it of course serves as a strong jumping off point for people without a strong grasp of history to learn more, this information also helps convey just how much the people who fought in World War I must have despised the conflict. Combined with the somber music that plays in the pause menu, Valiant Hearts does much to sell the message of “War is Hell.”

Yet, the writers of the game also follow a second, completely separate thread as the story progresses. Where Emile and Karl's tales depict the awfulness of World War I, the other subplots give off a more adventurous feeling. The first follows the American-born Freddie, whose moved to France in order to marry his lover, who was murdered by German soldiers on the say of their wedding. His is a standard-revenge story, with all of the usual trappings. Finally, we get to the story of Anna. A Belgian nurse attending school in France, she joins the war effort as a medic when she learns that her dad has been kidnapped by German soldiers, forced to create diabolical weapons for them. Her efforts to both provide medical care for injured soldiers and to find her lost father take center stage during her segments.
What unites these two threads is that both Freddie and Anna's problems can be traced to the same person. The one who both killed Freddie's lover and abducted Anna's parent is, and I swear this is true, the evil Baron Von Dorf. From the Saturday-morning cartoons most of us grew up on, the Baron represents a bad guy so absurd that no person could reasonably support him. This gives Freddie and Anna, and later Emile and Karl when the characters begin to interact with each other, a clear opponent to fight against in the context of a world-wide war. Whenever he appears, the game makes an abrupt and clear shift to the likeness of a Looney Toons short.

Furthermore, Anna in particular gets another dose of pulp in some areas. As the only playable character who uses a vehicle, Anna's driving segments often consist of her dodging obstacles on the road in perfect synchronization with classic songs like Night on Bald Mountain, Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies, among others. These segments are bizarre in how overwhelmingly energetic and cheery they are compared to most of the game. Even once Anna becomes aware of how bad things are, these segments make her seem absolutely eager to jump straight into the fray. Given what happens to both her and the other characters in the game, this is disturbing at worst and confusing at best.

These two separate tones, one of melancholy and one of adventure, are extremely difficult to reconcile with on another. Valiant Hearts makes the attempt, but never truly follows through. As a result, the game's underlying message is hard to piece together. Am I, as the player, supposed to be saddened by this chapter in human history? Am I supposed to think that war is a great thing that helps the good guys deal with the bad guys in an acceptable manner? Neither one of these questions is really answered by the game, and the writers do not appear to know which side they stand on either way for most of the duration.

Even a lot of the puzzles seem unsure of where they stand on this dichotomy. For example, at one point in the game, the player is tasked with clearing the chlorine gas out of an area so that allied soldiers can advance. To do this, they sneak into the bottom level of a German base. Seeing the large machine pumping out the gas, it is necessary to use the levers to move the pipes dispersing the gas into a position where they can build up pressure, overloading and exploding the system. Chlorine gas is was a serious issue in The Great War, to the point where chemical weapons were banned in future conflicts. Despite that gravity, the game presents uses a Pipe Dream-esque puzzle to present it. The topic lends itself to a serious exploration, yet the segment is one of the lighter ones in terms of tone. This disconnect left me feeling slightly uncomfortable, in a way that I am not sure the designer intended.
That said, no guilt was wrought. After all, nobody died as a result of me solving that pipe dream puzzle. In fact, until the very last part of the game, the playable cast does not have a single kill that can be directly traced to any one of them. Combined with the hand-drawn, exaggerated art style and a fairly vibrant color palette, Valiant Hearts invokes the impression of a children's show. This clashes with the bleakness of the source material. Even in this sense, the game seems unsure about where it wants to go.

Most of Valiant Hearts is spent in this pit of confusion over what message it is trying to convey. Not to say that the game is bad, as it does have many genuinely good moments scattered throughout, but rather that it is noticeably disjointed. Still, there is no denying that it is ambitious in its own way. There is relatively little difficulty in turning World War I into a first-person shooter. In comparison, significantly more challenge exists in building a small 2D puzzle game out of the subject. Rather than take the path of least resistance, they opted to do something unique. The final product is reflective of that, despite not fully succeeding.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013): Episode 9: Going Hollywood

This is the point where Tomb Raider starts to utilize more of the tropes from standard Hollywood action movies.

The game has an interesting, yet appropriate and subtle, tone shift either at around this point or slightly before it. In the very beginning, Tomb Raider takes queues from classic survival stories. We see how this heroine and her ragtag bunch of misfits learn to use the environment they find themselves in to stay alive. Inspiration is drawn from shows like Lost (the first season), and other media of that ilk.

Then, in the middle of the game, the tone shifts somewhat. The more "comfortable" (for lack of a better word) Lara grows with killing the people coming after her and doing what she has to in order to survive, the writers stop relying on those kind of survival stories for inspiration. Because we've already seen how Lara can survive, we no longer need any further evidence of it.

For that reason, Tomb Raider is now free, in this last half of the game, to go the route of more pulpy, adventurous stories in the vein of Uncharted and the Indiana Jones films that they are clearly dedicated to. These stories rely much more on spectacle and flare. Details can be left unexplained if they are not relevant to the broader arc, and action takes the day.

I stand by what I said in the episode about the shift being a little abrupt, but I understand what they were trying to do. This was always marketed as an origin story to take a relatively normal girl and transform her into something resembling the Lara Croft we knew from the other Tomb Raider series. Simply put, no one could possibly becomes that hardened without under great ordeals, so this second half is meant to give Lara the ability to overcome adversity. She's already a survivor, but now she can turn herself into a hero. It's not a bad idea, it just needed some slight changes to get right.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Texture Pop: Episode 34: MPPH

The whole group is together again in the effort to make this podcast more succinct. We will keep working at this, so feel free to let us know how we do. You may be confused about the title, but Sam lovingly

Remember, if you would like to send us a question or comment to be read on the air, you may do so at Even if you don't want it read out loud, feel free to drop us a line if you want to communicate with us.

0:02:05 Gaming News
Deadpool movie costume finally revealed:
Chris, as our comic book guy, seems rather optimistic about the production. After seeing this picture, I can understand why.

X-Files reboot is actually happened:
Sam does bring up a point about "Why does this need to exist?" Most fans of the show agree that the show went out on a whimper after its last two seasons, so a reboot may not be advised. However, it could be interesting to see how they work within the context of the modern world and more contemporary conspiracy theories. For an aliens-themed show, The X-Files aged well, but aliens are still out of favor. I'm interested in what they do with these six new episodes.
Also, David Duchovny did an interview after we record the podcast on David Letterman, talking a bit more about it.

0:14:05 I played a bit of Hitman: Blood Money.
Hitman has been a weird franchise. Even though it's never really been a big seller, it is almost always brought up as an example of good stealth game design. If you haven't played Blood Money, it's worth checking out. The previous games are okay, but never play the first (Codename 47). It's awful.

0:18:01 I played Final Fantasy III
I like the pacing of a lot of the NES/SNES JRPGs, because they are not meant to take up a lot of time. Considering how much games seek to give tons of content, without much depth or variety, it was nice to play a game that didn't try to be much longer than it had too.

0:22:30 I played Dragon Age: Inquisition
Despite how irritating it is for me to have to make so many different video game accounts, I am having a blast with Inquisition.
The Hinterlands criticism isn't exactly new, but it is worth reiterating. It's a massive trap that designers should have known players would fall for. Somehow, that slipped the net. The rest of the game has been pretty good, but the Hinterlands is a terrible starting area.

0:31:10 Garrett discovers that a rare Beetles CD is stolen.
He didn't do the stealing. Someone stole it before he could buy it.
Sam had a similar story, coincidentally.

0:37:30 Garrett took his friends through Second Life.
I know what you're all thinking: "Second Life is still around?" Yes, it is. I don't go on it, but there are people who still do.
Personally, I'm waiting on Third Life.

0:41:00 Garrett talks about the rest of his week.

0:42:30 Chris talks about Chrono Cross
Note: He did not actually play the game. Yet the conversation we had was worth it.
For reference: The Chrono Cross opening theme.

0:57:19 Sam played Drakengard with a PS2 emulator.
Though it is not a very fun game to play, I remember playing Drakengard just for how darkly compelling it was at the time. You need to play through a lot of mediocre game to get to those interesting bits, but dear god they make it worth it.
I'm also glad Sam used the phrase ",,.how much of a [weeaboo] he is, like me...." He's become self-aware.

1:06:35 Sam played Bloodborne.
I think Sam's thoughts on it are interesting. As someone who never played a Souls games, I can't comment on it with any authority. However, I appreciate that they exist and I am weirdly interesting in listening to people talk about them.

1:23:20 Wrapping Up.
Garrett is starting up a Twitch channel.
My Dragon Age pacing article is here.
Sam's Bloodborne article is here.
Interactive Friction is here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Interactive Friction: Tomb Raider (2013): Episode 8: The Mark of a Good Seaman

In this episode, we begin to talk a bit more about the side characters in the game.

This is also our first experiment with doing some slight editing of the footage. Mostly, we cut segments of combat, or of loading screens, where nothing interesting was happening in the game and we weren't making any observations or commentary. Without Sam's editing, this episode would have been a half-hour long, as is evidenced by the fact that "We're 14 minutes in," when you've only seen 7 minutes worth of show.

Watching both the uncut and cut versions back to back, it's obvious that the cut version is noticeably better. In the future, we hope to further improve our craft, resulting in better videos from here on out. Feel free to let us know your thoughts in the comments, as all feedback is appreciated.