Wednesday, September 9, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

So, until next time, cheers!

Monday, September 7, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that makes me sad.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

#97: Game Invaders: Dark Souls vs. Watch_Dogs

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 4, 2015

Interactive Friction: Watch_Dogs: Episode 21: Family Ties

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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