200 Games, 200 Words: 8 – Saints Row IV

When I started up Saints Row IV, I was pretty skeptical. The opening sequence plays as a bit too straight-faced an homage to Call of Battlefield: Duty Warfare Ops. But then you’re climbing a missile while Aerosmith’s “Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing” plays, and you know it’s all gonna be alright. This is more of what we all fell in love with in Saints Row The Third. But this time with super powers, essentially making it Saints Row: Prototype.

WU WUB-WUB WU-WU WU-WU WUB-WUB

I don’t know who this guy is on the cover and in all the screenshots. Surely everybody knows the Boss/President is a woman.

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200 Games, 200 Words: 7 – 868-HACK

I’ve seen a number of people calling this a “hacking simulator”, which to me seems as absurd as calling Space Invaders a “spaceflight simulator”.  It doesn’t even emulate cinematic hacking in the wonderful way that Uplink does, and which hasn’t been matched since that game’s release almost 12 years ago. 868-HACK is basically a solo board game for iOS with a vague “hacking” theme and roguelike elements – which is to say it has procedurally/randomly-generated boards. I’ve been playing this game for weeks, and honestly, it leaves me pretty cold. It’s substance with no style, which just reinforces the importance of style. The lo-fi aesthetic doesn’t bother me, but that aesthetic paired to such an intensely systems-focused game represents to me an ideological position I have a lot of problems with.

868-HACK

The cold equations

The basics are easy and relatively intuitive, but deeper stuff is obtuse to the point of seeming deliberately so. 868-HACK is even a bit obtuse about the existence of abilities/programs beyond those that start unlocked. If this obtuseness is deliberate, that seems obnoxious. If it’s not deliberate, it’s just incompetent at exposing its mechanics. 868-HACK evokes nothing more than a Euro-style board game, of the type that prizes systems with optimal ways to play rather than mechanics in keeping with a theme, or encouraging social interaction around the board. Obscuring mechanics just doesn’t seem to fit with this style of play. In any case, systems with an optimal path always seem boring to me. I’ve really tried to get into it, but figuring out optimal paths in 868-HACK just doesn’t appeal to me at all. And I don’t think there’s any great need for more games that are systems-focused, or disdainful of attention to non-systems aesthetics. 868-HACK is obviously a passion project, but it’s one that’s all about being dispassionate.

200 Games, 200 Words: 6 – Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs

I got to write a review  of the new Amnesia game from The Chinese Room for Games.On.Net. And I loved the game. Until it stopped being that game, and dragged out way, way too long, and got just kind of silly.

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Anyway, read the review. I’m going to use this to elaborate further, outside of the review format, and without having to worry about spoilers. Hence:

 

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200 Games, 200 Words: 5 – Mount & Blade: Warband

I’ve spent many, many hours playing Sid Meier’s Pirates!, and there’s the same addictive quality about Mount & Blade: Warband. There’s always just one more thing you have to do, just turn in this quest, oh, but you ran into some bandits on the way, oh, and now your fiefdom is being raided, so you have to go defend it, but you need to recruit more troops, and sell off the loot you got from the bandits too. This constant flow of tasks has no easily-identifiable break points, so you never feel like you can leave it alone, even though the reality is you can save and exit at any time, and pick up exactly where you left off.

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I think what really keeps you playing a game like this is that you might not remember what you were doing when you return to it later. Because almost all of what you do, and the order in which you do it, is entirely up to the player, you have to take on the whole cognitive load of planning and scheduling tasks. This is what takes up the bulk of the player’s attention while playing Mount & Blade: Warband, and once they’re in that state, there’s a certain inertia to it.

So it’s actually fortunate that you can’t play Mount & Blade: Warband for too long without running into one of the seemingly endless array of bugs, that snaps you out of that cognitive state, often by making one of your tasks impossible to complete. Those bugs are why I eventually had to just give up on the game altogether, because any given thing you’re doing might turn out to be utterly futile.

The Golden Non-Rule

I finally finished Dishonored recently, on my second playthrough. On my first playthrough I was stymied by the final level, failing repeatedly, but this time I found the whole thing pretty smooth sailing. I did really enjoy Dishonored both times, for the most part. There are, however, a number of issues I have with the game, and most of them are centred on what I see as a disconnect between what the game says and what it does. That is to say, I believe there is a conflict between the direction the game gives the player, through explicit and implicit messaging, and the way its systems actually function. I want to try to unpack this a little, through one of the many things I picked up in the years I spent playing tabletop RPGs.

Dishonored allows for a variety of approaches, from killing dudes to violently incapacitating dudes, to avoiding dudes.

Dishonored allows for a variety of approaches, from killing dudes, to violently incapacitating dudes, to avoiding dudes altogether.

In tabletop RPGs, there’s a common disclaimer, something of a recurring cliché, often called “The Golden Rule”. The Golden Rule is particularly prominent in the contemporary supernatural RPGs put out by White Wolf in the 90s and 00s. For example this is The Golden Rule as it appears in 2011’s 20th anniversary edition of White Wolf’s flagship RPG, Vampire: the Masquerade.

After twenty years, this is still the most important rule of all, and the only real rule worth following: The rules are what you make of them. You should fashion this game into whatever you need it to be. Whether you’re running a nearly diceless chronicle of in-character socialization or a long-running tactical campaign with each player controlling a small coterie of vampires, if the rules in this book interfere with your enjoyment of the game, change them. The world is far too big — it can’t be reflected accurately in any set of inflexible rules. This book is nothing more than a collection of guidelines, suggested but not mandatory ways of capturing the World of Darkness in the format of a game. You’re the arbiter of what works best in your game — mutually determined in play with the Storyteller and other players — and you’re free to use, alter, abuse, or ignore these rules at your leisure. Besides, there are scores of fan communities online that delight in tinkering with the rules to get just the experience they want, and the exact rule you’re looking for may be just a Google search away.

The simple version of The Golden Rule is this: if you don’t like the rules, change them. This seems sensible enough. If you and your buddies are gathered around a table for a game, it’s better that you over-rule the rulebook than spend hours arguing over some technicality or special case. It’s meant to bridge any gap that exists between the experience players want, or the experience the game suggests its rules should produce, and the experience or situations which the game’s rules and systems actually produce. Continue reading

200 Games, 200 Words: 4 – Dishonored

Replaying Dishonored recently confirmed most of my initial feelings about it, with one notable exception: I found the stealthy approach a lot easier than the first time. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t from memorising things or practice with the game, since I haven’t played it in a year. And I found the same thing with Deus Ex: Human Revolution as well, when I replayed that recently. I suspect that, somehow, something has clicked in my head in the intervening time, that makes me “get” stealth gameplay. Maybe I just have more patience, since stealth games typically require a lot of that.

Violence is bad.

If you are seeing this while playing Dishonored, you are a bad person.

Apart from that: the American accents still bugged me, but less so since I expected them. I do understand that that was a deliberate aesthetic choice, I just think it was a poor choice, one that doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the game’s aesthetic, which evokes nothing more so than the popular understanding of Victorian and/or Industrial Revolution Britain. I also think it’s problematic to give players the option of stealth or combat approaches, but then explicitly tell them that stealth is the morally correct choice. Dishonored gives players a wide range of tools, and then tells them not to use about half of them, and then also tells them they’re bad people if they do use them.

200 Games, 200 Words: 3 – Tomb Raider (2013)

After Tomb Raider’s opening sequence, I quipped on Twitter that it was the best fire-based adventure puzzle game this year. But that’s not all this game does, obviously. That’s actually kind of a problem, in that it’s trying to do a lot of things, and gets very few of them exactly right. It’s certainly a very enjoyable game to play, but there are a lot of nagging issues. For example, there’s a Metroidvania element, with new abilities unlocking new areas, but progression through the game’s spaces is actually far more linear than that. You might be able to access a new part of an earlier area, but getting there requires back-tracking via a fast-travel system. On that note, while there are certain open-world ambitions, the game never actually does more than hint at openness.

YYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY

To avoid rape, press Y at the exact right moment, then repeat. If you fail, start over.

There are also tonal issues aplenty. During the game’s promotion, there was a lot of talk around a scene where Lara is subject to attempted rape. The actual scene involves a skeezy guy making nebulous but definitely sexual assault-based threats, which you must escape from via a multi-stage, insta-fail quick time event. Hardly the most serious treatment of a very serious subject. Likewise, the game makes a big deal of the psychological impact on Lara the first time she’s forced to shoot a man. But seconds later she might shoot another man, and get a notification of bonus XP for a headshot.