Rick & Morty, Season 3, Ep 2 Thoughts

Season 3, Episode 1 of Rick and Morty was hilarious while continuing the previous season’s final episode. It doesn’t seem likely that we’ve seen the last of the Galactic Government or the Council of Ricks, or even that we’ve seen the last of Jerry.

Episode 2 of the third season, in contrast, proved to be one of the least funny things I’ve ever seen, not just among Rick & Morty’s episodes, but of any comedy show. Jokes were few and far between, if they even existed at all, and I honestly don’t think I laughed once through the 23 minute episode. It’s possible that I smirked a few times, but that was it.

So what went wrong?

The now-basically-defunct webcomic CAD went through a similar thing with its Miscarriage Arc, where it inexplicably stopped being funny and became dedicated almost entirely to an extremely serious and not-very-funny subject. Rick & Morty jumped the shark in the same way, choosing to forego comedy to instead indulge in an episode about divorce, escapism, and the tendency of divorce to cause children, initially, to absolutely despise one of their parents. Here’s to hoping that Episode 3 re-jumps the shark.

“Heavy-handed” would be an appropriate description, because everything was thrown to the side to explore these serious issues, and, at least for me, it was unwelcome. I enjoy casually exploring the hidden dimensions of the show, such as how, despite what he says, it’s obvious that Rick has fondness for his daughter and grandchildren. However, having the show itself bring these discussions to the forefront in a way that could be described as “anvilicious” (as in, it has all the subtlety of dropping an anvil) isn’t entertaining.

I don’t watch Rick & Morty to explore the ramifications of divorce, and neither do I watch Aqua Teen Hunger Force to examine the long-term effects of domestic abuse on children (Shake & Meatwad). In trying to pull a South Park–where a clasically comedic and silly show explores complex and meaningful subjects, Rick & Morty fell flat on its face and pulled a CAD. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are able to explore topics like divorce, racism (“‘T’ for… Time to leave!”), and politics while still maintaining the hilarity that has given it more than twenty years of popularity, but not everyone is able to strike that balance.

Everyone wants to be South Park, and everyone wants to be Ayn Rand–telling a story that involves complex subjects while still entertaining–but the fact is that it’s not something that everyone can do. If anything, Rick & Morty’s hopefully-finished foray into these areas was a stark reminder to the writers that they should write comedy, not drama. I haven’t seen any Facebook and Twitter posts about Mulan dipping sauce in the past week, not like I did following the premier of episode 1.

I wouldn’t call the episode “Bad.” I would, however, call it “dull, average, and uninspired.” The writers came off as hellbent on exploring these issues, and so they created a story that allowed them to, instead of following the arc of Rick & Morty naturally. If Rick & Morty Season 3 continues along this trajectory, it’s doubtful that there will be a Season 4, and, if they return to zany comedy there is no doubt that “the divorce” will be remembered as Rick & Morty’s “Miscarriage Arc.”

Or, rather, I should say “forgotten” as Rick & Morty’s “Miscarriage Arc.”

All isn’t lost. The truth is that Jerry was always a redundant character. Morty’s naivety and innocence make Jerry obsolete, and Jerry was only ever there to be the butt of jokes–which, basically, is Morty’s job, while Morty also functions as Rick’s Watson. Morty is at least as stupid as Jerry, and both have had their eyes opened to Rick in the same way, and across the same episodes. Jerry was superfluous and unnecessary from the start, and seemed to be there only to create a nuclear family.

That said, I’m not sure that “We should have the parents in this comedy show divorce! That would be funny, right?” was really the best way to go about it, at least not in a show that regularly kills its main cast. Killing Jerry would have been nobler–and even funnier, strange though that is to type out. Fans of the show will understand why that would be, though. Or, hell, having Summer & Morty die in the Council of Ricks, leading Rick to jump universes to one where they’re still alive, and finding there a divorced Beth, would have worked just as well while avoiding the alluring seductress that is “Turn the comedy show into a drama!”

Rick & Morty wouldn’t be the first show that fell to that temptress. And, if it doesn’t quickly refind its feet, it won’t be the last. It’s not over yet, and we’re still early in Season 3, but more of this drama crap will keep people from watching the show, and I doubt we’d see a return for Season 4. Shows on Adult Swim are lucky to make it to four seasons under the best of circumstances. Aqua Teen Hunger Force, perhaps one of my favorite comedies, screwed up when it tried to redesign itself to bring in fresh audiences, in the process leaving its existing audience confused about what was going on and not knowing whether the show was even still on the air. DVRs across America stopped recording it, because its name had changed to Aqua Teen Show Show or something like that. Aqua Teen Unit Patrol, maybe?

Audiences don’t take well to sudden and drastic directional changes, and everything about Episode 2’s headlong dive into drama was a sudden and drastic directional change. For the first two seasons, Rick & Morty handled these matters well, and still delivered funny television. Can the show go back to that? Certainly. Will it? We’ll see tomorrow, but the trailer for Season 3 suggests we’ll be seeing more Jerry, but rather conspicuously never showed Beth and Jerry together. So I think it’s likeliest we’ll see two or three funny, standard episodes, and then one heavy drama episode.

My hopes aren’t high, though, because it’s true: many shows have lost their way because they became tempted to take themselves too seriously. “We have this platform that we earned because of our comedy!” they seem to think. “Let’s use this platform to drop Messages!”

It rarely ends well. In fact, I think South Park may be the only show to have successfully pulled off that leap.

 

The NES Classic and Economics

We anarchists and libertarians are bothered by a great many things, but one of the things that bothers us most–and that is almost universal among anarchists and libertarians–is the general economic ignorance that pervades the United States. We wouldn’t tolerate this ignorance in any other subject, but it serves the state’s purpose to keep us ignorant of economics (the manner by which we turn energy into product), so it’s a field that is touched only briefly–if at all–in high schools. The average American knows only that there’s a thing called “demand” and a thing called “supply,” and then their eyes tend to glaze over and words like “derivatives” and “inflationary tyreni index G7P 14.7” run through their minds.

So, first of all, forget all of that. Forget about GDP, forget about inflationary indexes, and forget about all the shenanigans that we have come to associate with “economics” now that we have given over control of the entire economy to a coalition of privately owned banks that operate with no Congressional oversight. All of that crap is fiction. They are obfuscations designed to confuse us and distract us. They are smokescreens designed to keep us disinterested in the subject, to make us feel ignorant and stupid, and to make us blindly trust in these experts who seem to know what they’re talking about. In reality, they’re just talking nonsense, like this guy:

I’m not kidding. That’s the average state economist. That’s the Fed Chairperson. That’s the Secretary of the Treasury. For the most part, they have just completely made this shit up and invented rules that don’t have anything to do with reality. It’s a game of Monopoly that they’ve invented and tricked us into playing, and they keep us playing by using complicated language and nonsense to convince us that we need them being the game’s referee.

Now, I am not talking about the fact that Nintendo has ceased producing the NES Classic. For those unaware, Nintendo recently released a mini-console for $60, which contained 30 classic NES games like Mega Man 2, Castlevania, The Legend of Zelda, and others–even some stupid ones like Balloon Fight that nobody wants. Naturally, the thing sold very well, but Nintendo notoriously has problems with supply and did the same thing with their Amiibos (which are little toys that interact with some of their games). Nintendo repeatedly failed to manufacture enough Amiibos to meet demand, which led to accusations that they were doing it on purpose (in fact, one can conclude nothing else, since they publicly addressed the problem and then did nothing to fix it).

This obviously created scalpers, and scalpers are getting a lot of criticism. Some enterprising individual pops into Wal-Mart, buys an NES Classic for $60, and then posts it on eBay for $100 (or whatever price), pocketing the profit. This is actually a good thing, economically, but it’s a band-aid to the situation. Realistically, Nintendo should be the ones directly increasing the price of the NES Classic, instead of continuing to sell them for $60. In fact, thanks to the scalpers, there is no shortage. Calling this a shortage is economically ignorant and incorrect.

A shortage is when consumers are unable to buy an item.

And there you go. What we have with the NES Classic clearly isn’t a shortage. In economic terms, a shortage exists when Demand exceeds Supply–when more people want to buy a thing, and there aren’t enough of those things to go around. In fact, scalpers have ensured that there isn’t a shortage. Rather than condemning them, we should be thanking them.

The people complaining about a “shortage” don’t really mean that they are unable to buy the item, do they? Clearly, they don’t. What they mean is “I’m not willing to pay that much for one.” This is a critical element of economic understanding: price is not some arbitrary thing. Prices are supposed to increase like this, as the increase in price offsets Demand. Again, this is obvious. Many people were willing to pay $60 for an NES Classic. Fewer people are willing to pay $110 for an NES Classic.

This means that, quite literally, supply exceeds demand, not the other way around. In reality, what we have is a surplus, not a shortage. A shortage exists when demand exceeds supply; a surplus exists when supply exceeds demand. Thanks to the increased price, the supply persists today, and the demand has been lowered.

There is a character in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time who sells Magic Beans to the player, and each purchase increased the cost by 10 rupees. The first costs 10 rupees, the second costs 20 rupees, the third costs 30 rupees, and so on. An increase in price because of high demand is a normal, expected, and beneficial part of economics, as it ensures that we never experience a shortage.

During the 1980s, the United States saw pretty severe gas shortages. Gas stations attempted to raise the price as the supply of gas decreased, but the Federal Government put a Price Ceiling on it and forbade them increasing the price beyond that. So, naturally, everyone immediately set their price at the ceiling (even if they weren’t yet that low on supply). As the cost of something increases, people’s willingness to do it or acquire it decreases, which drives them to seek alternatives. Few people would have been willing to pay $100 for a gallon of gasoline, and so they might have taken that money and bought bicycles instead. Is it ideal? No, the ideal solution is to also increase Supply to re-lower the price, which will be necessary because some people have already chosen to go without because of the increased price. “No, we’re not going to go to grandma’s house this week, not for $20 per gallon. We’ll just not buy the gas at all.”

In the real world, some money is better than no money, and this is why producers can be counted upon to increase supply to meet the demand. Otherwise, they’re just leaving money on the table, and that money will go to someone else. This all has to do with diminishing returns, as well–at a certain point, because all goods are scare and finite, the cost of furnishing the supply gets too high, so the price of the good increases beyond the demand, and producers have to come up with alternative solutions for consumers. This is why we don’t have to actually worry about running out of gasoline: once we get up to $17 a gallon, so many alternatives will be cheaper that gasoline will be phased out all by itself.

While it’s certainly bad to have gasoline at $100 per gallon, especially during the 80s, it’s preferable to not having gasoline available at all. If some family had to take their sick child to the emergency room, it’s infinitely better for them to be able to buy gasoline at $100 a gallon than to not be able to buy it. High prices are always preferred to shortages. Those people out there who really, really want an NES Classic can buy one, which is obviously better than their being totally unable to buy one.

Scalpers have performed the critical service of increasing the Price of the good, which in turn lowered Demand so that Supply exceeded it. I was just talking with someone at Jim Sterling’s website about it, and I’d pointed out that marking the item as “Limited Edition” would have made the “shortage” worse. This was before I’d thought about the situation enough to realize that there isn’t a shortage. Sure, one can’t buy one at Target or Wal-Mart, but one can buy one, and that is unequivocally not the case in a shortage.

The only real point of contention is that the thing costs more than they’re willing to pay. Hey, that’s not a problem. There’s a “shortage” of $10 ones, too, and $10 is my price point for one. Every single person out there has their own price point–has their own amount that they’d be willing to pay. Evidently, for most people that number is around $60. For some people, it’s around $120. For me, it’s around $10. The fact that there aren’t any available at my price point doesn’t mean there is a shortage, though. It means that I don’t want one of the things as much as other people do*. These people who want to buy one for $60 are talking about “shortages,” but there isn’t a shortage–their price point simply isn’t as high as other people, and because of the low supply the price of the good has increased beyond the price point as determined by their personal demand.

So scalpers are good. They have performed the critical function of providing the NES Classic to the diehard fans who want them most, and we can say that pretty definitively, as one’s personal price point is determined almost entirely by one’s own demand. It follows that people willing to pay $110 obviously want one more than someone who is only willing to pay $60 for one. This means objectively and measurably that the scalpers have ensured that people who wanted the NES Classic most were able to acquire one.

It becomes little more than a whine when looked at economically. “I wanted one, but he got it because he wanted it more than I did! It’s not fair! Fucking scalpers!”

But, again, all the scalpers have done is ensure that people who are bigger fans of Nintendo and NES games were able to acquire an NES Classic, while people who weren’t as big fans and didn’t want one as badly as those other people weren’t able to, because they weren’t willing to fork over that much cash for one. I can’t even pretend to think it’s a bad thing that people who are bigger fans of Nintendo are able to purchase a Nintendo product that they want, as opposed to people who aren’t as big of fans being able to acquire the product. Clearly, it doesn’t matter as much to them, and the role of currency is precisely to allow us to measure value. That’s literally what currency does. The USD is a unit of measurement for value, and we use it to gauge how much a person wants something. If Person A wants a thing more than Person B, then Person A will be willing to pay more. If Person B can’t get it because he’s not willing to pay as much as, or more, than Person A, then the good should go to Person A, because Person A measurably wants it more.

I try not to tweet much at Jim Sterling, but I think I’m going to tweet this one at him, because he’s been pretty hard on scalpers in the past, and I don’t think that’s fair. Looked at economically, all they do is separate the Diehard Fans from the Casual Fans and ensure that the Diehard Fans are able to acquire the things that they are Diehard Fans of. I agree that this sucks for the Casual Fans, but that’s a problem of Supply, not the scalpers. It’s Nintendo’s fault that someone went without an NES Classic. The scalpers only ensured that it was the Casual Fans who went without, and that the Diehard fans didn’t have to.

I think that’s a good thing. I think that if Person A is a bigger fan of This Thing than Person B and is willing to pay more for it than Person B, then Person A should be the one who gets it.

* Actually, I don’t think I’d even pay that. To be completely honest, I don’t think I’d want one if it was free.

Skyrim Special Edition Review: Shallow & Pedantic

What can be said about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim that hasn’t already been said? Probably not a whole lot, but bear with me, because I’m going to try to give my perspective anyway. Much of this review naturally applies to the non-special edition, or, if you prefer:

  • Skyrim: The Mundane Edition
  • Skyrim: The Unfinished Edition
  • Skyrim: The “We Could Have Done Better” Edition
  • Skyrim: The Fuck You Edition
  • Skyrim: The Purchased Piecemeal Edition

One has to marvel at the audacity of re-releasing Skyrim in Fallout 4‘s graphical engine as a new product, but here I have to give Bethesda credit that they wholly deserve: the Special Edition of Skyrim is (was?) available for free to everyone who owned the PC version and all its DLC. What can I say? Bethesda knows where its customers are, and this is no small thing. I was a bit irritated when I learned that Skyrim was going to be re-released in Fallout 4‘s enhanced engine, and was supremely and pleasantly surprised to learn that it was going to be available at no cost to anyone who owned the original game and its three pieces of DLC. That’s shocking.

Kudos, Bethesda. In an age where publishers and developers are cutting their games into bits and pieces to squeeze every penny out of customers that they can, your actions stand in stark contrast, and I can’t praise you enough for this decision.

Now, all of that said, my review of the Special Edition is actually going to be pretty brief.

Skyrim: Special Edition

Why would anyone in their right mind go back to unmodded Skyrim? Maybe this is less of an issue with console players, but I can’t imagine any circumstances wherein I would choose to go back to playing Skyrim without the nine million mods that I’m accustomed to. It’s here that the Special Edition falls flat, and will continue to fall flat. The people who made the Skyrim Script Extender have stated they have no intention of releasing one for Special Edition, which severely limits what mods can do.

Additionally, the makers of SkyUI have stated they have no intention of porting their mod to the Special Edition, and all of this is certainly understandable. These people made these things for fun and as personal challenges to themselves. They’ve been there, and they’ve done that. They’ve climbed Everest and see no reason that they should climb it again. While they are willing to allow others to port their mods to Special Edition, it is looking increasingly unlikely that anyone is going to step forward to do it, and I can’t say that I blame them–not when Skyrim is as old as it is. That’s a lot of work to be doing on a game that is very old and not particularly exciting these days.

Without the SKSE, SkyUI can’t function. Without SkyUI, the Mods Configuration Menu can’t function. Without that, things like Warzones, Simple Multiple Followers, Companion Overhaul, Relationship Dialogue Overhaul, and many others either can’t function or can’t be easily changed. Moreover, I have to question Bethesda’s decision to make the mod menu much more like Civilization V‘s, in that it seems to happen primarily from the menus within game instead of externally. Maybe it’s because I’m a PC player, but I prefer to be in charge of the mod installation process. While I’m sure this is still possible, as it was for Civilization V even with its built-in mod browser and installer, it’s a questionable decision nonetheless to include this console feature on PC. It may be elitist, but if you can’t figure out how to Google and learn to install mods for Skyrim, then you probably shouldn’t be playing the game on PC anyway.

Take a good look at that image. It’s at the very beginning of the game, when Ulfric and Rolaf are about to be executed. This is the scene that is presented to the player. This is it. This is Skyrim: Special Edition. There’s a fucking horse’s schnoz taking up half the screen. And, needless to say, this is unmodded. This is the sort of slap-dash thing that can be expected from Special Edition–things added and implemented without much forethought or testing put into them. This image sums up better than anything I could say the entire Skyrim: Special Edition.

Back to Skyrim: Mundane Edition

So because anyone who has played Skyrim on PC before likely finds the idea of playing the game unmodded about as appealing as a root canal, and perhaps just as painful, I found myself almost instantly returning to what I’m going to continue calling Skyrim: The Mundane Edition. Why not? It’s not the Special Edition. What’s the opposite of special? Mundane. It’s a tacit admission from Bethesda that they released a mundane version of the game, isn’t it? Just like the Komplete Edition of Mortal Kombat 9 is an admission that they initially released an inKomplete version.

So let’s tear into the game.

Graphics

Unmodded, Skyrim is pretty. Modded, it can be among the most breathtaking games anyone has ever played. 4k retextures are common, and one of my all-time favorite mods adjusts the lighting so that it’s absolutely necessary to wander dungeons with a torch or the Candlelight spell. The mod I’m using for Serana makes her one of the most beautiful people in any video game ever.

Not to mention that I use a mod that causes snow to accumulate on clothes and bodies–because it only makes sense–and a mod that causes us to leave footprints in the snow.

There’s Serana in her Forsworn Armor–because what else would that gorgeous woman wear?–acting rather more naturally than companions do in the base game. I’m also using a mod that replaced PC skeletons so that females run and walk more like females. I even downloaded and installed a mod that served no purpose other than to put pigeons in Whiterun. I also use a mod that allowed me to marry Serana, because she’s probably the best crafted NPC that Bethesda ever made. Who wouldn’t want to marry Serana?

To be clear, neither I nor Serana continue to wear Forsworn Armor. Instead, I’ve used a mod that makes female armor a tad more revealing–Chainmail Bikini in full effect. My only gripe with it is that, as the Dragon Age: Origins mod that I use did, it went way too far. I think the Forsworn Armor should be used as a guideline as the most revealing piece of armor in the game. Instead, these mods take it and run with it, making the Forsworn Armor look positively conservative. I like half-naked women, I will not lie, but something has to be left to the imagination.

All that said, between the plethora of mods available and the naturally good graphics–although they weren’t really that much better than those of Gothic 3, which released long before Skyrim did–the graphics in Skyrim aren’t just great: they’re whatever the player wants them to be.

Aural Experiences

The default sounds of Skyrim, like the graphics, are good. It’s easy to get pumped up by some of the music and find yourself charging headfirst into a dragon, only to be bitten in half like the guards who once adventured until they took an arrow in the knee stopped adventuring. However, mods again come to the rescue and turn the Skyrim: Mundane Edition into the Skyrim: WHAT IS THIS EVEN HAS ANYONE EVER BEEN SO FAR AS DECIDED TO EVEN GO LOOK MORE LIKE Edition.

From sounds in the wilderness to lightning strikes during storms, wild animals, and ambient creepy noises in dungeons, mods take the ordinary Skyrim experience and turn it into something that borders on marvelous. In fact, Skyrim: Mundane Edition comes off more like a community-made game by the end of it, with Bethesda doing little more than providing the framework for everyone to add their own things to it. Sure, Skyrim: Special Edition has a better base to work with–in theory, at least–but the best have already moved on. I can’t belabor that point enough. There will never be a SkyUI for Special Edition. It’s not “in the works.” It’s not “check back in a few months.” It’s not happening.

All in all, Skyrim: Mundane Edition does a fantastic job of communicating information to the player. This is the job of graphics and sound, after all, and everything from distance detail to surrounding enemies to atmosphere are conveyed adequately and expertly. There’s not much to complain about. Everything else, however, takes a sharp plummet into shoddy territory.

Gameplay A: Quests

I hate Quest Systems. They were invented by MMOs in order to give the player something to do while minimizing the effects of the player’s actions. That’s what they were designed to do, and that’s what they do. The advantage is that the player can do a task for someone and be rewarded; thus, the player will feel as though they have achieved something. Additionally, the limited nature of the quest means that the only thing that changes is that NPC’s dialogue. It’s easy to see why MMOs need this: we can’t have players in MMOs all actually being the Chosen One and saving the world, after all. If players could impact any sort of meaningful change to the world, then the server would be horrifically unstable as it tried to figure out which of two players actually did something, and tried to adjust the world accordingly. Besides, if the game world changed, then those ten kobolds that Player A killed would mean that Player B would never be able to do that quest.

Blizzard has attempted to solve this problem with phasing, a point I bring up only to highlight that it is a problem with the Quest System. Players never see the impact they are having on the world. No matter what they do, those kobolds will respawn. The player is incapable of having any meaningful effect on the world, and the Quest System is the reason why. In MMOs, this is both important and critical. That single-player RPGs have borrowed it is nothing short of lazy and tedious.

If I took it upon myself to clear out every Bandit keep in the game, it wouldn’t matter. Skyrim would never react to my having done so. No NPC would ever remark that there don’t seem to be many bandits running around these days. Not only will bandits respawn–another feature typical of MMOs–but some of the keeps can’t be permanently cleared. There is an infinite number of quests in Skyrim, in fact–questing for a Jarl in a hold will ensure that a dragon or group of bandits is always respawning, and that the player can never actually do anything to change the world.

*Spoiler Warning: Dark Brotherhood*

Skyrim takes this and runs with it, becoming the most shallow game I’ve ever played. After going through the Dark Brotherhood questline and killing the Emperor, nothing happened. And I mean: nothing happened. The Emperor died, but that was it–it was no different from killing any other NPC in the game. While fighting the Civil War with the Stormcloaks, I, the mighty Dragonborn, killed the freaking Emperor! Talk about an instant victory in the civil war, right? No. Nothing happened. I don’t think that it was even mentioned when we wrapped up the civil war. It was like I hadn’t even done it. A few NPCs remarked from time to time about the Emperor’s death, but contrast it to the Emperor’s death in Final Fantasy VI to see what I mean. That had consequences–huge, incalculable consequences. The game world changes in Final Fantasy VI rather drastically as a result of Emperor Gestahl’s death. In Skyrim, nothing changes as a result of the Emperor’s death.

*End Dark Brotherhood Spoiler*

Nowhere is the shallow nature of Skyrim more evident than with marriage, another reason that I choose to marry Serana: by the end of the Dawnguard questline, she and I have forged a genuine bond. We’ve stood together and fought together, and even the most jaded of players will probably have to admit that there is genuine chemistry and emotion between Serana and the Dragonborn. Yet canonically Serana can’t be married; it takes a mod to fix that ridiculousness.

Generally, marriage in Skyrim works like this. You do a quest for someone, and then you go the Temple of Mara in Riften and tell the dude there that you want to get married. He sells you an amulet. You wear the amulet and talk to the person for whom you did the quest, and this gives you the dialogue option to propose to them, regardless of their sex or your sex, because everyone is bisexual–which I’ve talked about before. They say “Yes” and you’re married the next day. That’s it.

The official guide lampshades this by saying that, because of how dangerous life is in Skyrim, people tend to live for the moment and are eager to get married and have a partner. The Hearthfire addon adds the ability to adopt children–but one can’t actually have children, presumably because getting pregnant and spending 9 months with an avatar that is gradually growing larger was too much depth for Bethesda, even though even The Sims has managed to do it without much complication… And that could really add an interesting dynamic, especially if the Dragonborn is the one pregnant, since the Housecarl and allies would then be critical in protecting the Dragonborn while she was seven months pregnant. So many possibilities.

Adoption is also shallow–awkwardly and embarrassingly so. If players see a child they want to adopt, and the child is eligible, the dialogue goes like this:

Dragonborn: “How would you like to be adopted?”

Child: “That would be great!”

Dragonborn: “Well come along, daughter/son.”

Child: “Yay, momma/daddy!”

That’s seriously it. The hamfisted way that the Dragonborn says “son/daughter” toward the end of the dialogue is so awkward that I’m genuinely embarrassed for whatever poor sap wrote it. Not only is it painfully expositional–and stupidly so, since we literally just adopted the kid and probably haven’t forgotten that already–but it happens way too quickly.

That’s Skyrim‘s modus operandi, though. Speed, speed, speed! No time for development! It was jarring to join the Companions the first time and find myself as the leader of their order less than one in-game week later, after doing only three or four quests for them. I hadn’t even met some of them, yet this random person out of nowhere was suddenly their leader. The Dark Brotherhood, Thieves’ Guild, Mages’ College, and everything else follows that same pattern. There’s no time to form a genuine relationship with any of the characters or organizations; before the player knows it, they’ll be totally in charge of that organization.

It’s why the Dawnguard expansion stands out so much. Being devoted almost completely to one single questline, it’s able to show off what Skyrim could have been, if Bethesda had opted for quality instead of quantity. The gameworld does change as a result of what the player does in Dawnguard–the vampire scourge that annoyingly harasses the player after nearly every fast travel comes to an end, for one. Serana’s mother returns home, and they have some semblance of a happy family again. It’s not much, but it doesn’t have to go full World of Balance / World of Ruin for the player’s actions to actually have an impact on the world.

Another good example is the main quest, which I must confess I’ve never bothered to complete. Because of the player’s actions–but only because the game is player-driven, really…–dragons begin appearing all over the place. By moving forward with the quest, the player changes the world by unleashing all those dragons.

*Spoiler Alert: Civil War*

And then the Civil War questline totally drops the ball. By far, the most disappointing part happens directly after the Battle of Whiterun–which has its own problems. After taking and defeating the center of the entire region of Skyrim, the player is told to just kinda “do their own thing.” What the hell sort of military is this? There was so much potential here to take on a sort of simplistic Civilization or Age of Empires type of thing, where the player directed military forces here and there to hold off the Empire’s counter attacks and to gain territory.

I’m almost positive there is a mod that does this, by the way, but Bethesda should have implemented it. Having to choose between dispatching a unit to protect supply lines or risk that unit flanking the enemy and cutting off the Empire’s support… None of this would have been hard to do. Instead, the player is relegated to some sort of solo strike force, attacks a few holds, and then that’s it. Skyrim gains its independence, Ulfric is appointed High King, and… that’s it. Nothing changes.

* End Civil War Spoiler*

A mod can’t fix what is fundamentally broken, and Bethesda’s zeal for quantity over quality is Skyrim’s biggest problem. Now that I’ve completed Dawnguard and Dragonborn, I find myself not really having anything to do. Oh, there are plenty of quests that I could do–hundreds, perhaps even thousands. But they’re all functionally identical. They’re MMO quests. Kill these people, collect this thing, collect ten of these, go explore this place, deliver this message…

It’s true that a few of them are sequential chests, but these, too, are shallow and ultimately meaningless. “Ooh, I found Meridia’s Beacon and need to deliver it to a temple… Holy shit! She’s a daedra! Oh. She wants me to clear out the undead in her temple. Yeah, that’s new. I’ve only done that nineteen times since Bleakfall Burrows… Oh, look, druagr. Those are new. Neat. A legendary weapon that I don’t need because I can craft better stuff. And that’s the end of the quest. Hooray.”

This is 99% of Skyrim, these meaningless, trite quests that are identical to every other meaningless and trite quest in the game. The worst offender is the Thieves’ Guild quest, which ends with the forced option to sell one’s soul to the daedra Nocturnal to join the Nightingales. Let me reiterate: this role-playing game doesn’t provide the player the option to refuse to sell their soul and take their chances fighting someone. This is indicative of Skyrim as a whole: the only choice is to do a quest or not to do a quest. Quests happen exactly as Bethesda wanted, or they simply don’t get done. That’s disgusting for a role-playing game.

Gameplay B: Emergent Gameplay

Aside from my various adventures with Serana, one of the most memorable experiences for me was when Lydia and I stumbled across a keep of bandits. This was before I was using a mod to give my followers a mount–honestly, how did Bethesda not include that in the core game? We wandered into the keep mostly by accident. Archers killed my horse. I turned to flee, knowing that we were outnumbered and outmaneuvered, and I looked just in time to watch Lydia fall to the ground, dying. I rushed to her with Healing Hands equipped, but I wasn’t fast enough. An arrow pierced her heart, and my weak healing magic was no match for the steel-tipped projectile.

I was furious. I took my Werewolf form, and I went on a roaring rampage of revenge. I killed everyone in that keep, and then I ate them for good measure. I stormed through that keep like a maniac, ignoring the arrows they were firing at me, and slashing wildly. I smacked them into walls, tore them limb from limb, and then devoured their hearts. I exacted my vengeance decisively, and when it was over I was left with a sort of empty feeling, knowing that Lydia and my horse were still gone, and were never coming back.

Revenge had felt good, but it offered no long-term satisfaction.

But the memory has always stuck with me. I felt Lydia’s death and wanted vengeance much more powerfully than I had when Sephiroth dropped in from above and killed Aerith. I think this was because Aerith had to die–Lydia didn’t. Lydia’s death wasn’t the plot’s fault; it was my fault. I was the one who brought us to that part of the woods, not the story. I was the one who chose to take on the bandits instead of fleeing the moment I realized we were attacking a defended fort. Lydia, who had been with me through many adventures, right by my side and tanking for me while I threw spells and fired arrows from a distance, was dead.

Because of me.

She died doing her duty to her thane.

That sort of thing can’t be scripted, and stories like that aren’t uncommon when people discuss Skyrim. The only gripe I have is that the Quest System puts too much script into the game, and those scripts get in the way of emergent gameplay. This is also something that developers are aware of–it’s why Notch has explicitly refused to put any sort of quests into Minecraft, which, of course, is a game that thrives solely on emergent gameplay.

For reasons surely psychological in nature, if you give players a checklist of things to do, they don’t wander off that checklist. Consider The Legend of Zelda versus The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. How many players spent any serious amount of time exploring dig caverns and side passages in Twilight Princess? If you give a player a list of things to do, then they’ll simply do the things on that list. They’ll hesitate to go into a new, unexplored area before the game gives them an item on that list to go there, because in the back of their mind, they’ll know that somewhere in the game is a person who will add that item to their checklist, and so there’s no point in exploring it now–they’ll just wait until someone tells the player to go explore it.

People like to say about Skyrim that you can just pick a direction and go explore it, and eventually you’ll find a cave or some dungeon or something. That’s true, but how many people have actually done that? And how many players actually do it routinely? I’d wager that fewer than 10% of players have “picked a direction and started walking” and that fewer than 1% of that 10% actually do it regularly. Why go and explore Cave A when you have a quest to go and explore Cave B? Why go and explore a cave of your own volition when you can talk to a few people in a town and get a quest to go explore a particular cave?

So what’s the grand result of all this? Skyrim: Mundane Edition is a great game, but it has some serious flaws with the gameplay–without even getting into how broken and unbalanced it is. Destruction magic is a joke, even with mods that make it better, and I’d venture the guess that everyone ends up playing a sneaking archer by the end of it. Meanwhile, Skyrim: Special Edition brings with it a host of new flaws and carries one major caveat that makes it look pale when compared to Mundane Edition: a lack of mods.

Skyrim: Mundane Edition – 3.5 stars

Skyrim: Special Edition – 2 stars

Why I Left Cubed3

Inspired by an article shared by Jim Sterling, I’ve decided to tell my story about why I’m no longer affiliated with Cubed3. There’s a lot to go over, because I was affiliated with the site for two years. I want to be clear that I harbor no resentment toward the owner or the senior editors, and I’m sure they have plenty of negative things to say about me. Well, I don’t really have anything negative to say about them, but their behavior. As far as my behavior goes, there was a period in 2015 where I unofficially left the site for several months to deal with personal matters–that was when I began making The Transition, so I won’t apologize for that. In 2016 there were more periods of inactivity from me, and that’s really what I’m going to talk about.

Introductions & Reviewing

I was contacted one day via Gamefaqs by one of their senior editors, and he wanted to know if I was interested in writing reviews for the site. Apparently one of my user reviews had caught his attention, and I leaped at the opportunity. Just a week or two later, I was writing reviews for games like SDK Paint and Midnight. Shovelware, most people would call it, and not really games that anyone would be interested in playing much. I persevered through, though, and actually caught quite a few reviewers with their pants down, since SDK Paint routinely crashed after ten minutes, which proved that none of the other people who posted official reviews had actually played the “game” for longer than ten minutes.

Eventually I was able to pick the games I wanted to review, and the first among those was Venetica: Gold Edition, a game that I’d always wanted to like, but had never really been able to. There was no reimbursement for reviewing games, and none was expected. The “payment” for the review was the free game, something that I’m not particularly fond of anyway–it would later come with a few strings attached, as I learned with my 3D Gunstar Heroes review, when I was told that “Sega is nice to us, so be easy on them…” There was no monetary reimbursement or expectation of monetary reimbursement.

There were problems, though. I mean, how many people are really sitting around wanting a copy of Venetica? How many people are dying to play Blek on Wii U? Or Wind Up Knight? It wasn’t long and I had reviewed nearly every Final Fantasy game, having missed only Final Fantasy II and Final Fantasy VII. When Final Fantasy VII was released on PS4, I was an editor, but I wasn’t even given the opportunity to review it. One of the senior editors had claimed it.

This trend was omnipresent. From Super Mario Maker to Pokemon Sun/Moon, any major  AAA title was going to be reviewed by one of the senior editors or the site owner, with no exceptions. It’s true that I was able to review Rise of the Tomb Raider, but this was a different animal. For one, Rise of the Tomb Raider was hardly a major release. It was not marked on calendars like Breath of the Wild or Final Fantasy XV. Secondly, Cubed3 had a hard time getting codes for AAA titles that weren’t Nintendo products, which meant they didn’t have a code for Rise of the Tomb Raider anyway. This wasn’t a big deal, because I intended to get the game. In effect, I did them a favor by purchasing a $60 game when it was brand new and pumping out a review quickly–a review they otherwise wouldn’t have had.

About a month prior to its release, I made my intentions to review it clear. Shortly before release, I learned that its use of DRM meant that pirating a copy wasn’t going to be possible. If I was simply playing it for my own sake, I wouldn’t have purchased it. However, I keep my word, and my word had been given that I would review the game. Rather than waiting on a crack to release six months or a year later, I bought a copy and reviewed it. This isn’t their fault, and I don’t mean to make out that it is. My point is simply that, for a “real” game, one of the $60 ones, the only way a non-senior editor is going to get a copy is to buy it themselves.

That’s quite a damper to put on the “You get free games” offer. It’s more like “You get free games, but the cap on them is realistically around $15-20, which is nice, but these are games that you’re probably not going to want to play that badly in the first place, like Devils & Demons and Spacejacked!

Writing Editorials

Eventually I was asked if I was interested in joining the editing staff, and at the time there was a mass email between the regular reviewers, editors, owner, and senior editors. The plan was to revamp the site and add more features. I opted to take on the Critical Hits! column, which basically consisted of gaming editorials. I told them that my intention was to have a weekly article there, posted each Monday, because predictability drives growth more than anything else.

It didn’t take long for this to just totally fall apart.

The first problem appeared almost immediately. Within an hour of being posted, any editorial I wrote was swarmed by the rest of the staff, who seized the opportunity to write their own articles in the comments section. On several occasions, comments left by other staff were longer than the articles I had written. It was clear that it was a case of “Someone posted an opinion! Quick! I need to post mine!”

While I have no problem with people critiquing my work or commenting my work, the problem I had was that this is terribly improper behavior for other staff members: if they want to write an 800 word article, then they should do so, not leave an 800 word comment. And while I don’t care whether people agree with me or not, it’s extremely tedious to post a gaming article and immediately have three or four staff members comment about why they disagree.

When I brought up to the senior editors that the rest of the staff was merely using my articles as a springboard to write their own articles in the comments–often not having read my own article completely–I was told that they didn’t see it as a big deal. It’s unprofessional. It’s also a really, really bad look for visitors to see an article on a site and a flood of comments by other people with “Staff” by their name arguing with the original article. If I went to a website and saw that, the absolute last thing I would do is leave my own comment. No visitor will jump into a public debate between staff members in the comments of an article, which raises the question: “Who is this website for? The staff? Or visitors?”

Like clockwork, I had my articles to the senior editors within a reasonable timeframe to be edited and posted, but they were never published in a timely manner. There was nothing I could do about it. I didn’t have the clout to tell a senior editor, “Hey–this is supposed to be a weekly editorial. You didn’t post my last one for three weeks.”

Between these two things, I simply stopped writing them. If they weren’t going to post them within a reasonable window, there was no reason for me to spend time writing them, not when I could just post them here and save myself the trouble.

It was also the editorials that made me aware that each time I used the word “while,” the senior editors replaced it with “whilst.” I can’t even begin to describe how much that bothered me. I didn’t say “whilst.” I said “while.” There is absolutely no context wherein the -st is necessary, and adding it is simply a cheap and gaudy way of making writing sound more formal. My editorials stood on their own as formal writings without having this suffix added.

Joining the Editing Staff

There was never any promise of rewards or anything for editing; it was simply something that one did if one was willing. They asked and I accepted. However, there were guest spots for other websites at this time. The senior staff would give the editing staff opportunities to guest write for other websites like Ebuyer, and that seemed a fair trade. I would use my time and energy editing and posting a few reviews for them, and they would provide an opportunity to write elsewhere.

These dried up, though. Every day or two, I received a new email in a long chain with 7 to 10 reviews attached to it, all of which needed to be edited and posted. One editor would claim a review and post it, another editor would claim another, and so on. I averaged about two each week for a while, but then I just began ignoring the emails. Apparently, so did the rest of the editing staff, because we always used Reply All. Sadly, I was the most active of the editing staff, and there were months-long periods where I didn’t edit a single review because I had better things to do.

However, about once a month they needed someone to post a review at a specific time, when an embargo lifted. Because they’re based in the UK, it was usually an American editor that needed to do this, and I almost always volunteered to take care of these. They would send such a request, and I’d ignore it for an hour or two, giving someone else the chance to step forward, but invariably no one else did. These timeframes usually resulted in my setting an alarm clock for 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, waking up and posting the review, and then going back to sleep. I did this no less than half a dozen times, because I’m a team player.

I simply expect other people to be team players.

My activity dropped off, though, as I said, because… Honestly, who doesn’t have better stuff to do than editing and posting reviews to a website when it brings them absolutely no benefit to do so?

Another new year rolled around, and in January a mass email was sent out that informed everyone that minimum requirements were being put in place: people would have to do a minimum of five reviews each year, and editors would have to edit and post a certain number of reviews. I wrote something like 27 reviews last year, and communicating directly with the senior editors they asked if I wanted to continue editing. I answered that I was willing to, but there were problems that needed to be addressed.

The editing thing is trickier, and this is what I meant to focus on when I discussed the priority thing earlier. When faced with a limited amount of time to do things, I focused on the ones that seemed most likely to yield a significant reward: writing a book, networking with other anarchists, and that sort of thing. There’s no reward whatsoever for doing it beyond doing a favor for [site owner] and the senior editors.

It’s not like there’s anything that can really be offered to reviewers beyond the free games, or to editors, and I’m not saying that there should be. At least–not in a direct way. But something like the senior editors being able to acquire more “Hey, this website needs a guest writer–anyone want to do it?” would probably do a lot to help people stay focused and motivated. Maybe the senior editors/[site owner] can establish ties with small-name literary agents [I’d be stunned if at least half the staff writers didn’t write fiction], or just forge connections with other gaming/tech sites for the editing team to take advantage of. I’m just spitballing, but the whole editing thing does more or less turn out to be “Hey, would you like to take on some extra work for fun?” I had no delusions that it was anything else, and I’m still interested in doing with the way that it currently is. And I may be the only one this happened with, though it does seem that most of the other editors dropped out around the same time that I did.

Anyway, just throwing this out there. Nothing’s changed for me, and either way I intend to go back to contributing on Wednesdays at least.

Thanks,

Aria

As you can see, I went through considerable lengths to politely state my concerns, offer up solutions, and explain my position. Rather than addressing anything that I said, I received an email back from one of the senior editors that–and I’m not kidding about this–honest-to-god bitched at me for not communicating much with them. The next day, the other senior editor more politely asked for clarifications about what I meant about the guest articles, but by then my primary thought was “Fuck this site.”

It was insane. I wanted to write back, “Excuse me? I’m doing you guys a favor. I wake up at 3 in the morning and post reviews for you guys as a favor. I edit reviews and post them–when I feel like it–as a favor. I don’t get anything out of it. How dare you reply that I am the one with the problem because I stopped doing you those favors after I politely explained why I stopped doing them?”

This second senior editor was much more polite, and seemed genuinely interested in wanting my input, but by then the bad taste was left in my mouth, that he would have the audacity to suggest that the problem was I wasn’t doing them favors quickly enough or routinely enough. It’s absolutely true that they went months without hearing from me. And why? Because they went months without offering me anything but more work to do.

As part of the other senior editor’s reply, however, he said this:

The [guest articles at other sites] were interesting, but the return for Cubed3 was very limited because they kept incorrectly linking in the articles. So basically we were just putting our resources onto work another site when it would make more sense to have those sort of special articles on Cubed3 directly.

“…the return for Cubed3 was very limited…”

Honestly, I don’t care about the return for Cubed3. I didn’t write those guest articles because I wanted to increase Cubed3’s standing in the world; I wrote them because I wanted to increase my standing in the world. It doesn’t matter to me if they link back to the site properly or not, as long as they get my name right. But this, more than anything, highlighted the fundamental disconnect.

The guest articles at other sites were supposed to help the editors and reviewers who wrote them. I was proposing that they use them as a reward for people to participate and contribute. This, apparently, was an unfathomable idea, even to what I would call the nice senior editor. If it didn’t help them directly, they didn’t give a shit. They were focused entirely on themselves, their own wants, and their own needs. If this meant they had to shift the blame onto you, then they shifted the blame onto you. It left them unable to fathom that it might be a good idea to offer the editors a reward for taking up the otherwise thankless and tedious task.

Not to mention, my entire point was that it would have benefit for their site, by offering an enticing reward for people who actively participated. Simply reach out to a number of other sites, secure a guest article, and offer it as a reward to whoever edited the most reviews that week. Or simply offering one to each editor once a month, as long as they were active. There are countless ways it could have been implemented, and such a small and trivial thing would have done wonders to keep people active. And the reply I received?

“We’re frustrated, and you should communicate with us more!”

“Meh. It doesn’t really do much for our website.”

Well, maybe it doesn’t do much for your website. But your website doesn’t do much for me, either.

I totally understand that a relatively small site receiving probably just a few hundred hits a day can’t afford to pay people for reviews and editing. This is part of the site’s problem, though: it has taken on way too much staff, and it has absolutely no way to reward any of them. Games? Are you kidding? Unless you have a niche interest for Japanime games or something, you’re better off simply buying your games, because they either can’t get a code for it or one of the senior editors or owner will claim it before it’s even ready to be previewed.

No one is asking for monetary restitution, though, at least to my knowledge. But even simple ways of rewarding people for taking up more work are shot down. I enjoy editing; I edit stuff for people regularly. I list Editing as one of my skills at Outsource.com. I also enjoy writing; you just about can’t make me stop writing. Whether my article goes to Cubed3 or this website or http://www.anarchistshemale.com or somewhere else is immaterial to me; I’m going to write it and put it somewhere. Really, all they had to do was give me a reason to do it for them.

When you ask people to do you favors, don’t be surprised when they eventually stop doing it and move on. This is not limited to me. One by one, every single editor dropped off through last year. There were people in those chain emails who had never replied or edited one of the reviews. I have no doubt at all that their reasons are the same as mine. When your reviewers slowly vanish and your editors drop off one by one, and then one of your editors offers you polite suggestions and explanations about why it’s happening, it might be a good idea to listen.

I edited two more reviews for them, and once more did the “wake up at 4 am to post a review for them” thing. Then I started ignoring their emails again, and pretty soon they stopped coming. Thank the gods. If I wanted to do favors for someone all the time, only to have them bitch at me when I got sick of doing them favors while getting nothing out of it, then I would still be with my ex-wife.

The (Apparently) Accidental Brilliance of FNAF, and Why FNAF2-5 Aren’t As Good

There was a mechanic in Five Nights At Freddy’s that was almost universally hated, and you already know what I’m talking about: the power mechanic. Everything the player did consumed power, including sitting there doing nothing because a fan constantly ran and couldn’t be turned off. I have to admit that I, too, initially hated the mechanic, but the more I played the more I began to see its subtle brilliance. Before we get into that, though, we have to talk about something more overarching:

What Makes Games Hard?

There are two types of difficulty: fake and real. Fake difficulty is heavily reliant upon trial and error. Anyone who has played I Wanna Be the Guy has taken a primer course in Fake Difficulty. Much of I Wanna Be The Guy is also genuinely difficult, but it’s Fake Difficulty when a Delicious Fruit flies up to kill you, or when Dracula in a cutscene kills you by throwing a goblet at you.

Most specifically, I want to talk about the primary difficulty: resource management. There is resource management in a lot of games that may surprise you. RPGs, in their current state, are nothing more than resource management games. It’s all about swapping out a number in the MP column to do a number of damage to the enemy to earn enough Experience to gain a level and have a higher MP pool while also earning enough money to buy an MP restoring item. This is precisely why RPGs are notoriously harder at the beginning and become increasingly easy as progress is made: the player acquires not only more resources, but more types of resources.

At early levels, a player may swap out 4 MP to do 75 damage to an enemy with 150 HP that gives 5 gold, while a healing item that restores 20 MP costs 10 gold. As you can see, if there were no other factors, the player would have to kill two of those enemies–burning 16 MP–to earn enough money to buy one MP restoring item. That leaves one extra spell cast, and that’s not much room for screwing up. Later in the game, though, the player is using 45 MP to do 4,320 damage to an enemy with 3,000 HP and earning 150 gold for doing it, while an item that restores 250 MP only costs 125 gold. The ratios become more and more balanced as the game progresses until the scale tips firmly in the player’s favor.

Even more specifically, I want to talk about Resident Evil 2.

You see, Resident Evil 2 had finite resources. The number of bullets in the game never changed. Enemies didn’t drop bullets, and if the player exhausted their supply, that was it. There were no more. At all. While there were more than enough bullets to cover the game, that didn’t change the fact that a trigger happy idiot with terrible aim would have an extremely difficult time beating the game until they learned to conserve and save ammo. This was real difficulty, and it could result in a game that was practically unwinnable because the player was extraordinarily careless and… bad at the game.

Yes, a player who runs around emptying an entire clip into a single zombie is bad at Resident Evil 2, and the game is going to severely punish them for that. They’re going to die, and there’s no way to recover those bullets. The only way to undo it is to start over and git gud. Nowhere was this more apparent than with the finite amount of save points that were in the game. That’s correct: the player could only save the game a certain number of times, because each save used an ink ribbon, and there was a limited number of them. Not only could the player burn through their ammo, but they could back themselves into a corner where they had to navigate the last 20% of the game with no saving and very little ammo. No room for error. They had to buckle down and give it everything they had.

When that failed, they had to restart the game, putting what they had learned to use, and improving.

FNAF

My experience with Five Nights At Freddy’s went exactly like this.

I died on the first night. I burned through my power because I had my cameras up constantly. This is what initially earned my ire about the game. It was fun to be creeped out watching the cameras, but the power mechanic punished me for doing it; the power mechanic punished me for having fun. However, it was so much more brilliant than that, and I just hadn’t grasped it yet. I naturally ran out of power.

Or I was killed by one of the animatronics. I don’t remember any longer, but I didn’t know that I could just not check the camera and would still live.

Regardless, the first time I completed the first night, it was with very little energy remaining. I died on the second night. A few attempts later, I survived the second night with very little energy remaining. Now that I’d gotten a decent feel for it, I made it through most of the third night until I ran out of power at 3 AM. Shit! Then 4 AM. Damn! Then 5 AM. Fuck! Then I finally had the clock roll over while I was out of power.

It wasn’t accidental, of course. Each time I played, I got a little bit better at conserving power and doing what was necessary without going overboard. The fourth night played out exactly the same way. Foxy really screwed me over for a while, because I wasn’t checking the cameras enough, and man… When he bangs on that door, it murders your remaining power. So I ran out of power early. Then I made it a little further, and then a little further. Then I was again saved after losing power by the clock rolling over.

This happened again on the fifth and sixth nights. It didn’t happen on 20/20/20/20, because the movement formula for that is so precise that there isn’t any room for individual variance, but there was absolutely no doubt. Each night forced me to get better at the game. And it worked beautifully. I not only mastered Five Nights At Freddy’s, but something else became apparent.

The Brilliance of FNAF

Because of the power mechanic, Five Nights At Freddy’s literally forces players to do nothing. It forces players to sit on the edge of their seats, almost biting their fingernails, with their hearts pounding and their tension high, and doing absolutely nothing to defend themselves or even watch out for the animatronics. Those moments of doing nothing are remarkable, because they’re necessary.

This is a game where things are constantly coming to kill you, and the game forces you to sit there and do nothing about it at regular intervals. These periods of doing nothing feel like they last forever. Have you ever heard someone doing a livestream or a YouTube video say, “I have to force myself to wait 5 seconds before doing anything else” and then counting off to five? Their “seconds” are never seconds. Most of the time only 2 or 3 seconds elapse while they count to five, because their heart is pounding. Those moments of doing nothing are extremely intense, and at literally any one of those milliseconds an animatronic could pop its head into the door.

And the player won’t know it because the player can’t know it, because the player must sit there in silence and darkness or will run out of power. There’s nothing like sitting there for five “seconds” doing nothing and then attempting to check a light, only to hear the buzzer that means an animatronic is inside and that death is inevitable.

That is what made Five Nights At Freddy’s so amazing. It wasn’t just the jumpscares, although I’ll admit that, for the first few times I played, the jumpscares themselves were very well done. That’s only the tip of the iceberg, though. What is truly terrifying about Five Nights At Freddy’s was the one mechanic that everyone loved to hate: the power mechanic. The one that forced players to sit there helplessly, knowing full well that things were coming for them.

FNAF 2-5

This is also the element that has been missing from every Five Nights At Freddy’s game since, though FNAF3 came closest to imitating it with the machinery that intermittently breaks down. Unfortunately, the actual mechanics of FNAF3 were so convoluted and unexplained that the malfunctioning equipment becomes little more than an annoyance. The wind-up box in FNAF2 was another attempt to do the same thing–force the player into a helpless position–but we all know why that was such an annoyance.

Don’t even get me started in the tedious Sister Location that only upped the complexity and made the stages longer and more annoying. FNAF 2 and 3 both had the right idea; Scott knew that the forced period of helplessness was what made the original so terrifying, even if the average player didn’t. However, he handled them in poor ways. The second game saw the wind-up toy and an overabundance of animatronics. I may be atypical, but I don’t think anything more than the original 4 were really necessary… I never paid much attention to which was which between Chica and Bonnie.

Forcing the player to constantly open the camera to wind up a toy was an interesting reversal of the first game and how it forced the player to constantly put down the camera. Since frontal and side assaults were the biggest threats, rather than Freddy, it worked, even if it was as criticized as the first game’s power mechanic. It was a clever way of doing the same thing without pissing off players with the same power mechanic.

In the first, of course, failing to look at the cameras would send Foxy down the hallway to either kill the player or drain power by banging on the door. Additionally, watching Freddy through the camera would lock him in place and prevent him from moving. However, while the player was looking through the camera, Bonnie or Chica could come in and kill the player as soon as the camera was lowered. This is almost certainly what killed everyone the first few times they played Five Nights At Freddy’s.

In the second game, however, failing to check the hallway in front of the player or the vent lights to the left and right would result in certain death, and the only defense was donning a Freddy mask quickly. Foxy or Mangle regularly popped up in the hallway, requiring the light to be shone down them, and the cameras became completely useless. In fact, they became worse than useless, as they blocked your view and meant that you weren’t checking the hallway or the vents. The solution was to force players to open the cameras, and so the remote wind-up box was added, forcing players to make themselves helpless.

I’d venture the guess that the wind-up boxes is hated a little less than the power mechanic because opening the camera to wind up the box is doing something, while putting the cameras down and sitting in silence was not. Though it was probably better received, it also wasn’t anywhere nearly as terrifying. Sure, the player is frantic and rushed while pulling up the camera to wind the box, and is every bit as helpless while doing it as they were while doing nothing in the original, but there’s still a large psychological difference between “doing something” and “doing absolutely nothing.”

Winding up the box is frantic, panicked, and rushed.

Sitting and waiting is terrifying.

FNAF3 forced helplessness by having the equipment randomly stop working–except it wasn’t really random. I think the voice player broke after three uses or something like that. I’m not really sure, because I loathed FNAF3. The mechanics were too complex for a game like that. There are five nights, each of which lasts ten minutes, and dying a few minutes from 6:00 AM on the third night leaves players not having any idea what they did wrong. Or maybe the ventilation just stopped working at the worst possible time. Who knows? The game is too poorly explained for mechanics that complicated.

That was FNAF3’s biggest problem: the helplessness was unpredictable. The player couldn’t just improve their management and make progress, because there were too many variables and too many things that at least seem luck-based. When I die in Five Nights At Freddy’s 1 or 2, I know exactly why, I know what killed me, and I know what I should have done better. Often, I know that I’m dead before I die. This was even true before I mastered the game; to be fair, now when I die, I know exactly why, without fail. Even before that, though, I knew it was my mistake, I knew what I’d done wrong, and I knew what to do to fix it. This was usually “consume less power.”

That meant “Take on more helplessness.”

That meant intentionally putting myself in a state of helplessness.

That’s terrifying.

This was rarely the case in Five Nights At Freddy’s 2. I don’t think that I’ve ever been killed by the Puppet, and I suspect that this is true of most people. And because we’re engaged in the act of doing something–looking through the camera and winding the box–we don’t feel helpless. We just feel annoyed.

Five Nights at Freddy’s 3 was better, as I said, because it was true helplessness. You had to reboot the systems, and that took a while. During that time, it was very likely that Springtrap was going to get very close to you. And if he was already close to you, then you were probably looking at a death. This time, however, the powerlessness was beyond the player’s control. It happened when it happened, and there was nothing that could be done about it. While this could have been scarier, it’s not, primarily because it was forced upon players.

Players making themselves helpless and dying because of it is one thing. The game making players helpless and then killing them is another thing entirely. Players were forced to be helpless, instead of forcing it upon themselves. I lack the expertise to explain why the latter is so much more intense, but it absolutely is.

FNAF4

Then Scott decided that musicians shouldn’t be able to play his games any longer. Look, my computer is run through a Sony surround sound system that cost me about $700 back when I worked at Harrah’s. On top of that, I purchased two supplemental speakers, each of which contains a 15″, a 6″, and a 2″. There’s a reason that it’s my primary device for music. It sounds amazing. And with the enhanced subwoofer and rear speakers, it gets louder than most people would guess.

Yet even turning it to full blast and cranking up gain on everything, I cannot hear the opening crickets of Five Nights At Freddy’s 4. Irritated, I unplugged my sound system and plugged in headphones. What happened? I still couldn’t hear the crickets. I attempted to play the game, but never heard anything that could be described as “breathing.”

I’m a rock musician. From 18 to 27 years old, I stood in front of 8 twelve-inch Celestion speakers in a Marshall cabinet playing guitar. I’m not hard of hearing by any means, but my hearing is certainly not what it should be. Five Nights At Freddy’s 4 relies entirely on sound cues. I heard something while listening at the doors, but none of it could have been described as “breathing.” There’s too much ambiance noise for a child’s bedroom. There shouldn’t be music at all, if that’s what he’s going for. How am I supposed to listen for breathing anyway, if the music swells in random places? Are you kidding me? That’s terrible game design.

And it’s all in the name of jump scares, isn’t it? That’s the trick. Make the player listen real closely to every little squeak and sound, every tiny, low-volume noise, get really quiet, and then RAWR SCREAM REAL LOUD IN THE PLAYER’S EARS.

“Scary” right?

“Bullshit” would be more accurate.

Sister Location lost me midway through the second night by adding even more complexity than FNAF3 had. These games are made in Clickteam Fusion, or something like that. They are not suitable for complex game mechanics. They’re simple games made in simple programs using simple concepts. Adding in a bunch of complexity isn’t a good idea, and I would have thought FNAF3 would have taught people that. One of the FNAF YouTubers I like got to Night 4 in FNAF3 without having any idea what he was doing or what he was supposed to be doing. When he died, he had no idea why, or what he had done wrong.

More to the point, though, the fear is gone. The terror is gone.

It wasn’t the jumpscares that made Five Nights At Freddy’s so nail-biting. It was the player-forced helplessness. It was knowing that you were in a dangerous situation, yet knowing that you had to sit there quietly and doing nothing if you wanted any chance of surviving. Five Nights At Freddy’s was brilliant for that, but the follow-up titles make me think that it was accidental brilliance. I’d love to see the series return to its initial glory, not chase after complexity and whore-ish jump scares.

Don’t make me strain my ears just so you can randomly blow a horn in my face and startle me.

Terrify me.

Turok 2: A Moderately Painful Blast From the Past

I have a love/hate relationship with the first two Turok games. On the one hand, they’re terrible from almost every perspective. On the other, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter was the first N64 game I owned, and it was my mother who bought it for me. So I can’t truly hate  Dinosaur Hunter… I can’t hate anything that’s attached to my mother. But, holy crap, I do not like it.

The game consisted of only seven or eight levels, only the first of which was I ever able to complete, and they are positively gargantuan. The first two Turok games (I simply don’t know about the third game) might actually contain the longest stages found in any video game, with the possible exception of some of the N64 collectathons. Even a reasonably skilled player is going to spend two or three hours simply traveling from one end of the stage to another.

The biggest problem with Turok: Dinosaur Hunter is that the stages are bland, empty, and uninteresting. Nothing sticks out as interesting or worthy of attention, and the first two stages both take place in a largely nondescript jungle with just a few textures painfully and obviously repeated on everything–not that you can see it through the absurd amount of fog meant to mask the N64’s low draw distance.

The sequel attempted to fix this by adding variety to the stages as well as mission objectives, which were implemented masterfully by Goldeneye. Following Rare’s FPS masterpiece, which held Nintendo Power’s #1 spot for nearly as long as Ocarina of Time (which, incidentally, was the game that finally dethroned 007), the flaws of Dinosaur Hunter were all the more apparent, so Acclaim valiantly attempted to improve the experience. Though I never owned this game, I borrowed it extensively (along with a useless Brady Games strategy guide), but, again, never managed to complete anything but the first level.

Turok 2: Seeds of Evil has now been remastered and released on Steam, so it seemed a perfect time to revisit it.

All of the problems that plagued the first game made their way into the second, as they evidently were the core of what a Turok game is. There is slightly more variety to the textures, and each stage has its own environmental feel, but it’s nowhere near enough to fix what is fundamentally bland design. There are, from what I’ve been able to tell, merely six stages this time around, and they still take a ridiculous amount of time to slog through.

Even knowing what I was doing, completing the first stage still took me more than two hours, made worse because I somehow missed two children. Believe it or not, the in-game map is less useful now than ever, as portals, doors, and the like are no longer clearly differentiated, and that the maps consist of nothing more than lines is an inexcusable remnant of days long passed. Would it have killed them to add a mini-map, and a Zelda-style map that can be opened?

Before I’d completed the first stage, though, a problem bigger than the stages presented itself: performance is abysmal. While I’m in need of a new graphics card (but have so much going wrong these days that a new card isn’t even on my radar), everything else in my system is top notch, and I’m well above the recommended specs anyway. I can play much more recent and graphically demanding games like The Witcher 2 [I didn’t care for it, so haven’t played The Witcher 3] without problem, but Turok 2: Seeds of Evil  regularly stays around 25 frames per second, and gets as low as 1 frame pre second. This game is like fifteen years old! The graphics were not improved nearly enough to tax my hardware.

Common complaints on the forum are from AMD users, of which I am one, and it honestly seems like the game was not tested on AMD hardware. This wouldn’t be the first time; Mass Effect was tested on only one sound card and one video card. I don’t know what else to think when I can open Project64 and emulate the game perfectly at 1920×1080 with all graphical features maxed out, but the PC version hiccups along at 20 frames per second at lower resolutions and with fancy settings disabled. There’s no excuse for this lack of optimization, and it hinges on making the game unplayable at times.

For the most part, however, it is playable, and I’m fairly sure the stages have been redesigned and made more linear, thank the freaking gods. Stage design comes off much more like modern games, like Resident Evil 6, Final Fantasy XIII, and Tomb Raider (2013) in that each stage is basically a gigantic tunnel with occasional and very brief alcoves off the main path that lead to largely inconsequential treasures. Here the treasures are of more use than another Potion or the second of three useless collectibles and the branches are a bit longer (taking 3-5 minutes to explore instead of 20-30 seconds), but it’s fundamentally the same. If the treasure here isn’t a new weapon, then it’s a level key or mission objective. This can actually be more annoying, though, because there’s no way to tell which of two paths proceeds through the level and which leads to a mandatory objective, forcing the player to travel quite a ways down both paths before knowing.

Once more, these levels are fucking massive. This is not a good thing. It’s better now, since one can save anywhere instead of only at designated spots, but it doesn’t help those times when I’d like to play the game but remember before launching it that I’m about halfway through, and just can’t bring myself to laboriously trawl through another seventeen tunnels across five warp portals to reach the next mission objective.

Image from N64 version

Without anything else being close, the marathon stages–which once were Turok 2‘s greatest strength–are its biggest detriment. The only saving grace is the nice collection of weapons, which do at least make it interesting to do nothing but kill one enemy every one hundred feet, but the initial offerings are boring, and the more exciting weapons aren’t found until later stages and then don’t have a great deal of ammo lying around.

The Cerebral Bore is the best example of a fascinating weapon, producing some sort of projectile that burrows into the enemy’s head and causes it to explode. It’s every bit as horrific as one might think, and it’s reasonably jarring to actually sit back and ponder what just happened–did that monster who is really just defending his nest from you really deserve to have its head bored into and exploded from within?

The story of the stages–and, indeed, overall game–don’t really offer up enough justification for Turok’s wanton slaughter through aliens’ homeworlds. And what of the dinosaurs who are just trying to catch a meal? If Turok is supposed to be the good that balances out the darkness–or something to that effect, because it isn’t explained very well–then he probably shouldn’t be pounding velociraptors in the face with rocket launchers. The most egregious case, however, are the levels that require the player to actually destroy embryos and egg nests. That’s called “genocide.”

These may seem silly complaints about an old game made as a justification to give players lots of weapons to blow things up, but there’s not much else to do while trekking through the hours-long stages except ponder the implications of mass murder and gross violations of the Geneva Convention. At least the bad guys only imprisoned children. Turok murders their children. Is the Primagen really the bad guy, if he’s trying to stay the hand of a mass murdering psychopath who shoots baby aliens in the throat with nuclear guns?

Also known as: “The best weapon you’re going to have for a very, very long time”

As players wander from one end of a thousand mile journey to the other, they will have to complete a handful of objectives for each stage; counted individually, one stage has seven whole objectives, but most end up with only three or four. These objectives, of course, are scattered almost randomly across the levels, which often results in thirty minute traversals across empty terrain sparsely populated by enemies with absolutely nothing being accomplished. It would be like if the opening level of Goldeneye scattered its four alarms sporadically across a stage that takes two hours to finish.

Good luck finding that one alarm that you missed somewhere along the way, especially with no useful in-game map and virtually no logical placement of the objectives. Why in the name of sanity would they place an Ammo Depot at the top of a gigantic pillar in The Death Marshes?

A few of the stages require an hour of play before even the first objective is reached; that’s not an exaggeration. By the time I’d killed my first Sister of Despair, I was certain that the entire level would have to be played again, because I’d accomplished none of the objectives but knew intuitively I’d gone through about 65% or more of the stage. The three beacons in the Port of Adia are within ten or fifteen minutes of each other, so the bulk of the stage is simply an attempt to find two more children who are located somewhere along the remaining 85% of the stage.

This might have been fun to some people during the N64 era, but it wasn’t particularly fun for me, nor is it exciting now. The only reason that I’m continuing to play Turok 2: Seeds of Evil is that I refuse to accept that I can’t beat it, which is what I believed to be the case until the remaster. I didn’t think it was possible to complete the game on N64, even with a helpful guide, at least not without extraordinary amounts of not fun backtracking and aimless wandering through levels that are ten times larger than they need to be.

There is enjoyment to be had here, but it’s going to be limited to people who enjoyed Turok 2 already. A gamer who grew up with more modern shooters will likely find it utterly unplayable, and an older gamer will likely find it playable but tedious.

What were they thinking with the Lair of the Blind Ones?!

The music is actually better than I remember, or perhaps just better than I noticed when I was a stupid kid, but the same can’t be said of the sound effects. The weapon sound effects are appropriate, but environmental sounds are atrocious. Through most of Hive of the Mantid, there is a horrible whirring sound that relentlessly emanates from places on the map, which means the terrible sound constantly gets louder and quieter, but it’s almost omnipresent. I had to delete almost all of the gameplay footage from Hive of the Mantid because I screamed about that noise through nearly the entire stage, which was almost as annoying as the sound itself.

Almost.

It was always apparent to me that “NTHGTHDGDCRTDRTK” spelled something, but I was never able to figure out what. I thought “NTHG” meant “NoTHiG,” though “TRK” was obviously “Turok,” and so wasn’t able to deduce it. As it happens, it’s “oN THe eiGTH Day, GoD CReaTeD TuRoK. Seeds of Evil sees the simpler “BewareOblivionIsAtHand” as its code, and activating “The Big Cheat” makes the game moderately more entertaining once players get sick of crawling through the boring stages. Achievements can’t be earned while cheats are active, but the achievements themselves also show off the weird mindset that goes into making a Turok game.

For example, there’s simply one achievement for finding secret areas: finding all thirty of them. That’s the big issue with Turok, alright: nothing is optional. In order to even beat the game, a player must find all five feathers, all six pieces of the Primagen Ship Key, must get all Talismans, must complete every objective, and must find all the level keys. This means anyone who has beaten Turok 2 at all has effectively 100%’d the game. As someone who enjoys 100%ing games, I’m actually put off when it’s mandatory. Being able to swim through lava isn’t a reward for carefully searching the land; it’s a requirement for even reaching the final boss.

That’s bad game design, and it should have been fixed.

Something else that should have been fixed is the notable lack of permanent upgrades. Shortly after entering the Death Marshes, I found myself thinking of none other than Diakatana, and how I should have gained some kind of permanent power-up to my Health, Armor, ammo capacity, or weapon damage. Enemies get stronger, but Turok doesn’t really become stronger, and even the more powerful weapons are so crippled on ammo that they don’t make up for the enemies that take six blasts of the Plasma Cannon to kill. The pistol and bows become useless; even a way to choose the loadout when I enter a stage would be great, since I could leave the pistol, shotgun, PFM Layer, Tranquilizer, and ordinary Bow behind instead of having to tediously cycle through them to get to a weapon that will actually be useful against the enemy shooting rockets at me. It really wouldn’t have been difficult to implement something like this, and anyone who wants a “pure Turok 2” experience is going to emulate the N64 version we grew up with anyway.

If an enemy in stage 5 is going to take 45 bullets fired from the Mag 60 before it dies, then I should have gained the ability to carry more than 50 bullets somewhere on my journey to level 5.

A remaster should serve as more than just a graphical update. The gameplay itself should be modernized, at least within reason. Adding the ability to save anywhere–that’s an example of modernization (which might also have been present in the original PC version, I’m not sure). Adding mission objectives to the UI–which aren’t as useful as one might think, since the radius of their appearance is very low–is yet another example of modernization. I am also pretty sure the stage layouts were altered and made more linear; I wasn’t that dumb and impatient as a kid.

Turok 2 desperately needed a bit more modernization, though, especially at a $20 price point.

1.5 / 5 stars

 

Switching Zelda Up

I love Zelda. But you probably know that already, and, if you have followed me for a while, then you also know that I’m exhausted and exasperated by the Zelda series and Nintendo’s lamentable tendency to just keep re-releasing Ocarina of Time with modified dungeons and a different title. I very badly want to play The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but I simply can’t right now, because I don’t currently own a Wii U, and there is no chance whatsoever that I’m about to go out and buy a Nintendo Switch.

Do You Got the Power?

Nintendo Power used to be an institution of gaming. I don’t know anyone who didn’t have a friend or family member, or themselves, subscribed to the magazine, and for good reason: Nintendo was the gaming company. It’s not hard to navigate to a certain bay of pirates and find the first fifty issues of Nintendo Power and browse them, and I’d highly recommend everyone do it. Something will immediately strike you, though, as you piece together why Nintendo shut down the magazine.

Each issue was filled to the brim with previews and reviews, of course. At one point, Nintendo was running a Top  30 NES games section, and even though most of the top ten were games made by Nintendo, they had more than enough games to on the system to fill a Top 500. In fact, at the end of its life, more than seven hundred titles had been released on the Nintendo Entertainment System, from developers like Capcom, Bethesda, Konami, and others.

The Super Nintendo reached similar acclaim and had more than 700 titles at the end of its life, but then things went awry. Fewer than three hundred titles were released for the Nintendo 64, and a shockingly large chunk of them were first or second party titles. The Gamecube, with more than six hundred titles, at first seems successful–compared to its predecessors, it certainly was. However, this is when gaming really broke into the mainstream, and a whopping 1,850 games landed on its competition, the Sony PlayStation 2. Compared to its competitors, the GameCube was found wanting.

Things only got worse from there, with the Nintendo Wii having a mere 317 exclusive titles. If there’s any reason to continue, the Wii U saw fewer than 300. And, just as was the case with the Wii, the bulk of the Wii U’s library was total bullshit. The GameCube, Wii, and Wii U left no doubt whatsoever that, while Nintendo themselves still made excellent first party games, there simply was not enough third party support to justify purchasing the console. No gamer owned just a Wii, or just a Wii U. Everyone who owned one also owned one of the other two consoles, or a PC.

None of the hit, new games being previewed in Nintendo Power really captured the public’s attention. Players who wanted to read about the latest in RPGs, strategy games, and other genres had to go to a different publication; only players who wanted to read about the new Zelda and Mario continued with Nintendo Power and, let’s face it, there just aren’t enough new Zelda and Mario games to justify a console.

So unsurprisingly the magazine was dropped. The early days of Nintendo Power saw most of its issues filled with talk about third party games. Castlevania 2, Dragon Warrior 2, and so many others. Only rarely was an issue fixed primarily on a first party title, and never was an issue fixed only on a first party title.

The Wii

I made the mistake of buying a Wii. After reaching the second world in New Super Mario Bros., my wife and I were so bored with it that we didn’t anticipate that either of us would ever play it again. In fact, we didn’t. After one night of mandatory bowling and boxing, we took the stupid thing back. Even hacking it didn’t seem very appealing, since we each had a PC capable of running anything we wanted to play.

It wasn’t until the price of the Wii dropped to $40 that I purchased another one, and that was primarily for the purpose of hacking it and playing some of the GameCube games that I still had. It didn’t make sense to try to find a replacement GameCube since the Wii ran them, and I’m pretty sure the Wii was cheaper. Despite my frequent requests, my sister regularly left it on, and it predictably fried the disc drive, exactly as the Wii was prone to doing when left on.

She eventually bought a Wii U, and I borrowed it for a while when she was bored with it, but I never purchased one myself. Mario Kart 8 was a suitable distraction here and there, but it certainly wasn’t enough to command my attention long–just another Mario Kart game, really, with no evolution and only negligible changes to the gameplay. Just as Zelda has been, the Mario Kart series has been stalled since the N64. The only changes have been gimmicks: Oh, now you can have two drivers! Now you can drive upside down!

Nintendo sure loves their gimmicks.

Super Smash Bros. 4 was an enticing and enjoyable game, but extremely lacking in content. I readily admit that I played probably thousands of hours in Smash back on the GameCube, with my wife and friends in Melee, and Nintendo seemed to be under the impression that they could just do that. In fact, it seems they forgot to put an actual game in there. I’d love to play Sm4sh, but… there’s nothing to do.

The HD remaster of Wind Waker and Twilight Princess were neat, but I don’t see much of an improvement over the original WW, and I can’t fucking stand Twilight Princess. It is easily the worst Zelda game ever made. I have no idea how anyone can tolerate that trite, inane, and repetitious crap that was little more than a remake of Ocarina of Time in the first place.

Ocarina of Time… Ah, there’s a classic. Except… it isn’t. Because Nintendo won’t let it become a classic, because they won’t let it age. I’m not referring to Ocarina of Time 3D or the Zelda Collector’s Edition or even the GameCube OOT/Master Quest disc. I’m referring to Twilight Princess, which was pretty much exactly the same as Ocarina. I don’t see any noteworthy difference between the two.

The only truly great game that hit the Wii U was Super Mario 3D World, which is an absolute masterpiece of platform gaming. Goddamn, that game is good. I came very close to 100%ing it–and would have, if my sister hadn’t reclaimed the Wii U so that she could sell it for more Lego Dimensions character sets. The only thing I had left to do was beat the first seven worlds with Toad and Luigi, two characters that I never used. I loved that game.

This game is a masterpiece.

The New Zelda

Nintendo would have been crucified if they hadn’t released Breath of the Wild on the Wii U, so I understand their decision to do it. However, that decision is also the reason that I’m not going to buy a Switch. A Nintendo console gets one, maybe two, Zelda games–HD remasters don’t count. I have to commend Nintendo on putting a great deal of time and care into a product, and I’m not saying they need to release more Zelda and Mario games, but I am saying that… it’s not very likely that the Switch is going to get another Zelda game.

The NES received two. The SNS received one. The N64 received two. The GameCube received two. The Wii received one. Oh, yeah. Skyward Sword. I’d forgotten about its miserable existence. It’s also a remake of Ocarina of Time. The Wii U received three, technically, but really just one. Hell, the Wii U came really close to not even getting a new Zelda game, to be honest.

This decision of Nintendo’s–a pro-consumer decision all the way–to release a new Zelda game on two consoles is not good for them. I never owned Twilight Princess on the Wii. I had it on GameCube. Why on Earth would I buy the tedious, motion-control nightmare that was the Wii version? Why would I have bought a Wii to play it, when I could play it on the GameCube?

Today I’m faced with essentially the same decision that I was faced with back then, when I giddily purchased Twilight Princess at Wal-Mart for the GameCube. Goddamn, I was so excited! I couldn’t wait. And then… Ugh. By the time I completed the second dungeon, I was so bored with it that I purchased a strategy guide and just followed its instructions through the rest of the game. In effect, I remember very little about Twilight Princess. I played it on Auto Pilot, following a guide, because it was so extraordinarily boring. I’ve tried several times to replay it, but always get bored before reaching the lake temple. I honestly don’t understand how anyone who has played more than 2 or 3 Zelda games finds any enjoyment whatsoever in Twilight Princess.

Excitement

While I’m probably going to find a Wii U from a pawn shop–I’m on excellent terms with one of them [they’re a client] and can probably get it for less than a hundred books, and I’ve no qualms about trading in a few laptops or something that I have lying around–and am going to get the new Zelda, I’m not particularly excited for it.

I’ve avoided most of the hype and trailers, just as I always do for a game that I’m interested in, but what I’ve seen so far doesn’t leave me particularly excited. Zelder Scrolls sounds more and more appropriate, but learning that it borrowed Assassin’s Creed “climb the tower, reveal the map” shit really lessened my interest, because I know exactly what to expect. A bunch of meaningless collectibles, a set of items that we’ve all seen before, and a meaningless return to the series’ origins.

I’m judging the game before I’ve played it, and off of very little information about it, but that’s the problem. Even if I didn’t have the personal mandate to avoid all spoilers and information, I’m not interested in information about it. I already know what to expect. It’s another Zelda game. It will have Zelda items and Zelda dungeons set in an Assassin’s Creed overworld and with Elder Scrolls type side quests.

I’ve put off the decision to buy a new graphics card in favor of buying a Wii U, but it’s not really the new Zelda that I’m most excited about–it’s Super Mario 3D World that I’m looking forward to. In fact, it may be a few weeks before I even buy the new Zelda game. It just doesn’t seem appealing, and very few people have more experience and history with the Zelda series than I do.

People are raving about it, and lunatics are criticizing reviewers for only giving it a 9/10. Predictably, some people are saying that Ocarina of Time has finally been dethroned. By a paint-by-numbers Zelda game with an Assassin’s Creed overworld. I’m going to play the game, and these criticisms of it aren’t even fair since I haven’t, but, again, that’s the point. These people praised Dragon Age: Inquisition, and it’s one of the worst games I’ve ever played. Final Fantasy XIII received extremely high scores, and it’s also one of the worst games I’ve ever played. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning got a 7 in Game Informer. These same people are giving the new Zelda a 9 and 10. It doesn’t mean anything to me, because they watched the latest superhero movie and came all over themselves, even though it was exactly like every other superhero movie. So I don’t exactly trust their ability to recognize crap when they’re consuming it.

I should be excited. It’s a new Zelda game! Unlike JP in Grandma’s Boy, I didn’t beat The Legend of Zelda before I could walk, but I had beaten it before I entered kindergarten. This is a series I’ve been playing my entire life. It may even be my favorite series. Other than some of the handheld titles, I’ve never missed one of them, and never failed to get one near its release day. Even Twilight Princess had me excited.

But this?

It’s just “Oh, look. They made another one.”

RPGs, Battles, & Game Length

Before we begin, you should probably read this background article I wrote at Cubed3, because I’m going to be building a bit from that, though I’ll be repeating some of it, too, so I’m not sure how critical that article will be. With that out of the way, I’m just going to dive into it, because the millions of thoughts I had for this article as I lie in the bed this morning trying to fall asleep are fast attempting to escape.

RPGs Are Long

We all know that RPGs constitute the longest video games out there. Whatever form it comes in, from the improperly-named “Strategy RPG” that is more appropriately called a Tactical RPG, to the Action RPG to the Western RPG to the Eastern RPG, some of these types of game can take upward of 40 hours just to finish the main story, and sometimes well over 200 to fully complete the game.

In fact, this has always been the case, but I’m not really sure that what constitutes an “RPG” these days truly qualifies any of these games as Role-Playing Games, and they are all at least 80% fluff: mindless grinding and repetitious battles. This has also always been the case, from the earliest console RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, if you cut out the grinding for gold and experience, then the games can be completed almost as quickly as a speedrun of Super Mario Bros.

In other words, these games take a long time to play, but they aren’t actually very long games. Using Hex Editing, it isn’t too difficult to start a new playthrough of Dragon Warrior on NES at level 30, with 50,000 gold. Doing this results in a game that takes about 15 minutes to beat. The only necessary parts are visiting Garinham for the harp, rescuing the princess, getting the three tokens, and defeating the Dragonlord. While that sounds like a lot, most of these are just out-of-the-way places that are protected not by a large amount of landmass but by obscenely powerful enemies that force the player to grind to have even the smallest chance of reaching them. Contrast this to games like Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, where there actually is a huge amount of “landmass” that must be traversed separating the player from the goals.

ultima3-extras-cover4Maybe Dragon Quest is a bad example. What about other RPGs? What about Ultima: Exodus, on NES or PC? This game is firmly 99% grinding. If we remove everything that isn’t canonically a part of the story and start the characters at level 25 and with max stats, the game can be beaten in less than ten minutes. Both Ultima: Exodus and Dragon Warrior, however, are RPGs that can take a player twenty or thirty hours to beat. That’s a huge amount of tedious grinding that serves only to keep the player busy.

Final Fantasy follows the same pattern. Cutting out combat yields a game that is slightly longer than either Dragon Warrior or Ultima: Exodus, but not by a whole lot.

Does this trend continue today?

Bethesda’s developers always have an in-house competition before a game is released, where the programmers play against the game designers and race to the finish, to see who can finish the game first. If I recall correctly, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim took a little under three hours. Part of this is that much of the game’s content is optional, but if we’re removing combat then we’re also removing all the quests that involve combat, and that cuts the game down substantially. With all monsters and monster-slaying quests removed, except the ones that involve dragons because they’re canonical, it’s likely that Skyrim could be finished in under an hour, and completed in less than five.

An RPG Without the Combat

For years, perhaps even a decade, I’ve rolled my eyes and mocked people who classify the Zelda games as RPGs. They’re not RPGs. They’re Action Adventure games. However, they’re just as fairly called RPGs as any of the games I’ve mentioned above. As I wrote in the Cubed3 article, an RPG isn’t defined by having things like character levels, a strength stat, a defense stat, and things like that; those are just the tropes and cliched gameplay mechanics. An RPG is defined as a role-playing game. In the Zelda games, yes, players play the role of Link just as much as they play the role of Mario in Mario games, and just as they play the role of the Dragonborn in Skyrim.

An RPG with the turn-based combat and leveling systems removed would look exactly like the Zelda series, in fact. The reason I bring this up is that, aside from the entire genre of RPGs, what is the longest type of video game? Zelda games, hands down. The original Legend of Zelda was huge for its time, and even being an expert player it takes me about an hour to 100% the first quest. They’ve only gotten longer as time has gone on, and removing the combat from Zelda games would only knock off a little bit of that–and then only in the first game. By the time A Link to the Past rolls around, the game itself is enormous, and even running through the game uncontested would have it taking several hours to finish. Ditto with Ocarina of Time.

The same is true of most well-developed games. Super Mario 64, without its combat, would still take a considerable amount of time, as would Super Meat Boy and, honestly, the majority of games. No other genre of game has its overall playtime impacted nearly as much as RPGs when combat is removed.

RPGs Re-Imagined

So let’s return to square one: we want to make a role-playing game. Adding character levels, character stats, and turn-based combat won’t be enough to qualify our game as an RPG any longer; in fact, people are so tired of those that they would just call our game a Calculator Simulator, or a Wall Street Kid duplicate where players spend their time watching animations that swap a number in one column from a slightly larger number in another column with the aim of producing a gain in net resources. Just as players accomplished this in Wall Street Kid by selling a bunch of stocks and buying other stocks, players in RPGs accomplish it by using a magic spell to do x damage to this enemy to earn y gold and z experience, which eventually increase m MP available for that character as well as x damage. Stripped down, it’s nothing more than a numbers game.

I hate puzzles. I tolerate them in Zelda games, but I generally don’t play video games because I want to do a lot of thinking. Most puzzles in Zelda games are okay, but others–like the dual statue puzzle in Twilight Princess–are irritating and overkill. I roll my eyes in frustrated anger when I have to do the stupid Fade in Dragon Age: Origins, or in Dragon Age 2, or in Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening when presented with the stupid ring of fire puzzle. You can’t give players mindless, repetitious combat and then interrupt it with a puzzle. Without fail, I simply look on the Internet how to do these puzzles, because I can’t be bothered to even try to figure them out–although, as a member of MENSA, it’s pretty definitive that I could if I wanted to. The Wind Waker is the first Zelda game since A Link to the Past that had puzzles that weren’t overkill, in my opinion. Twilight Princess also had absolutely ridiculous ice block sliding puzzles that were atrociously tedious.

Besides, would a Zelda game that features a challenging puzzle in every single room of every dungeon really qualify as anything more than a Puzzle Game that forced players to move a Link-shaped cursor from one puzzle room to the next? Would such a game really be any different from hacking Link into Blek? Not by my estimation. But, to be fair, by my estimation Final Fantasy XIII was nothing more than an overly elaborate DVD menu that, instead of having people press up and enter on a remote to trigger the next scene, required people to hold up for x seconds and then press A y times before the next scene triggered.

In fact, one of the best role-playing games that I can think of is none other than Stardew Valley.

“Role Playing Game? Aria, you lunatic. That’s a Harvest Moon clone, not an RPG.”

But think about it. One of the biggest things we would need to add to our new RPG in order to even allow players to actually craft and play a role, are lots of complex NPCs with whom the player can form relationships. The interplay of the player and NPCs in Stardew Valley is no different at all from the interplay of the player and PCs in Dragon Age 2. The mechanics are simply different, Dragon Age 2 features voice acting, and Dragon Age 2, being a AAA title, rightly includes more robust dialogue trees and interaction options.

We’re wanting to let the player play the role of a character in some video game world that we’re creating. The exact mechanics of interacting with the world aren’t terribly important, but it is critical that we provide the player with the tools to craft their character to their liking. This is far more than just cosmetic options, and this is the point that Dragon Age 2 nails with its dialogue trees and Stardew Valley nails with its robust cast of characters: choice. In fact, because of the wider plethora of options available, I would hazard the statement that Stardew Valley actually beats out Dragon Age 2 in this category.

In Dragon Age 2, if you want to be a gay male, then Anders is your only option. If you want to be a lesbian, then the sexy but slutty Isabella is the only option. Possibly Merril, honestly. I don’t remember; it’s been years since I played, and Isabella is so hot that she’s irresistible as a love interest. However, once the player has made their choice, interacting with that other character is where Dragon Age 2 tops out Stardew Valley. While Stardew Valley contains a known ten male love interests and ten female love interests, the selection in Dragon Age 2… is extremely limited compared to this indie game made by one dude. Moreover, every NPC in the game can be romanced by any gender of character, which brings me to a side issue I want to discuss.

Not Everyone is Bi

In order to avoid dealing with controversy from the inordinately powerful LGBTQ group in the United States, most developers choose instead to simply have every romance option be bisexual. This is not only unrealistic, as a transsexual lesbian I argue that this is offensive and exclusive of straight people. There have been countless females I’ve been interested in, just through the last year, with whom I could not pursue a relationship because they weren’t interested in another woman or a transsexual woman. It sucks, but it’s the real world.

People would make the argument, “But what does it matter? If a player is playing their game and wants to romance a character of the same sex, it doesn’t affect anyone but that player. It’s messed up to deny a player an option that they’d like simply because some people are straight.”

And that’s true to an extent, but a very narrow way of viewing the world in others. In fact, the converse is easily just as true: “But what does it matter? If a player is playing their game and wants to romance a straight character, it doesn’t affect anyone but that player. It’s messed up to deny a player an option that they’d like simply because some people are bisexual.”

*sigh*

*sigh*

It seems to come as a surprise to SJWs and the LGBTQ community, but straight people exist, and if a person is bisexual then they aren’t straight. There are lots of men who wouldn’t want to have a relationship with a woman they knew had enjoyed same sex relationships in the past. Such a woman is, by any definitiion, not straight. Bisexual is not some middleground to make straight and gay people happy; it’s a distinct sexual leaning in its own right. If a person is gay, then they aren’t bisexual and they aren’t straight. If a person is a lesbian, then they aren’t bisexual and they aren’t straight. If a person is bisexual, then they aren’t straight and they aren’t homosexual; they’re bisexual. Having zero heterosexual characters in a video game is exclusive to straight people. Every character being bisexual is not some happy middleground to please both straight and gay people. How can my female Dragonborn sleep next to her “straight” husband knowing that her “straight” husband is actually bisexual and has possibly been fucked more times than she has? It’s an absurd question, yes, but it underscores the point: bisexual isn’t straight.

Back to RPGs

Dragon Age 2 was panned by a lot of people as being a Dating Simulator, and I suppose that’s a fair criticism, but what else could any true role-playing game do in order to allow a player to actually roleplay? Again, as I pointed out in the Cubed3 article, we’ve forgotten what the “RP” in “RPG” stands for. It quite obviously stands for “role-playing.” Instead, we think an RPG is a video game where the player avatar has a character level and a bunch of other numbers attached to him/her that go into complex damage algorithms a la buying and selling in Drug Wars or Wall Street Kid.

That RPGs are so naked was revealed to me by the Paper Mario series, where that is literally what players do, though the actions are accompanied by flashy animations. Players expend one SP to do one damage to the enemy and gain one coin and one EXP point. Players take one damage from the enemy and from their pool of 10 HP, meaning they can be hit ten times before dying. Since each enemy dies in one hit, this means that they can kill 19 enemies before having to use a healing item that restores 10 HP and costs 10 coins. Voila! The smart and skilled player makes a net gain of 9 coins and 19 Experience, which accumulate and increase the player’s pool of HP to 15, thereby allowing them to take more hits before having to use a healing item and making an even greater profit while swapping numbers in one column for columns in another.

It’s exactly like Wall Street Kid. The only difference is that there are more resource types, the Buying/Selling mechanics are a bit more convoluted and masked as Attacking/Defending, but it’s otherwise exactly the same. In fact, our little complex relationship system is the only thing truly unique to RPGs, and thus the only things that can qualify a game as an RPG.

I actually have to end this here to do something else. I didn’t even get to the main point, which is that RPGs need a severe overhaul, and need to stop wasting players’ time for the purpose of padding out gameplay. Yes, there can be action elements in an RPG that take the form of battles. Yes, there can be abilities, spells, strength stats, and hit points. But the “brunt of the gameplay” shouldn’t consist of that.

How To Fix Civilization 6

civilization_vi_cover_artI’m absolutely shocked by the extremely positive reception that Civilization VI is receiving. Those familiar with me know that I have a long history with the series, and have been playing since Civ III–apparently, whenever you attempt to criticize one of the games, you must point out how long you’ve been playing the series, and if you can’t at least claim to have started with 3 then your opinion becomes invalid. This is rather like how people can’t criticize Final Fantasy X unless they started with Final Fantasy VII or earlier–on that note, I started with Final Fantasy. No number. Beat that.

I am doing a full review of the game for Cubed3, and I’m going to post what I have so far here, but I’m going to be a bit more honest afterward. Anyway, here’s the yet-to-be-finished review. Please ignore the BBCode:

[i]Civilization VI[/i] is a game where players attempt to build cities while a psychotic AI declares war on the player, marches its troops up to the city centers, and then politely stands there while its army is bombarded to death. Much has been said about the awful AI, but given that diplomacy is such a critical part of the game, it’s nothing short of disgraceful that the AI-controlled players seem to have no idea how to play the game.

 

It’s not uncommon to hear complaints that, before the one hundredth turn, every single civilization on the player’s starting continent had declared war on the player. In a few games, enemy civilizations were [i]introduced[/i] to me—they hadn’t yet been discovered—by declaring war on me. “Oh, hello there, Brazil. It is a pleasure to meet—[i]we have had enough of your insolence![/i]” None of the games in the series have had intelligence that could remotely qualify as “intelligence” by even the most under-achieving programmer’s standards, but this reaches absolutely remarkable levels of [url=http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/ArtificialStupidity]Artificial Stupidity[/url].

 

Diplomacy as a gameplay mechanic is such a cool concept, but it continues to elude Firaxis on how to implement it. Not only is the AI horrendously stupid, but the only options presented in diplomacy are trade deals and war declarations. This is such an enormous step backward from the ability to tell rival civilizations not to build so closely, not to send their missionaries, and things of that nature. Again, the Community Patch Project rightly expanded the options of the predecessor, such that they were as extensive as those found in Civ IV, but [i]Civilization VI[/i] represents a gigantic step backward from even vanilla CiV.

 

It’s difficult to convey, but in one game I built a second city to claim a natural wonder I’d found. The very next turn, England contacted me to request that I not build cities that close to them. That was no problem, as I generally expand empires circularly, as opposed to growing in one direction. Everything seemed fine—diplomatic crisis averted—until the next turn, when Victoria declared war on me, saying that she could not tolerate my behavior any longer, and sent almost one whole warrior to conquer my capital. She proceeded to send an entire warrior to punish me for several turns, at which point I grew tired of her nonsense, surrounded London with archers, and eliminated her from the game. As my archers rained doom upon her city, she contacted me just about every other turn offering me a peace deal, and there was still no button to say, “You brought this upon yourself. Now die with dignity; I’ll not receive your diplomats again.”

 

AI lunacy knows no bounds this time around, and that’s not getting into the glitches, bugs, and other oddities that gamers have now come to expect from new, expensive video games. Perhaps the most interesting of these is when Gandhi is contacted by Gandhi to declare that Gandhi will no longer put up with Gandhi’s aggressive behavior, and that Gandhi thereby declares war on himself. For bonus points, this can happen with any civilization, and to the player, though there appears to be no in-game effect. Aside from that, it’s not uncommon to end a war and immediately be contacted by the loser stating that they’ve noticed the army on their borders, and they’d like to know if this means war. The best cases are when a nation on the other side of the world declares war on the player, and then offers a peace deal a dozen turns later offering up a bunch of gold. It’s bad in ways bizarre and embarrassing.

 

The focus is said to be on the multiplayer experience, but it was notoriously prone to desyncs and crashes upon launch, and the game, for this reviewer, has always been best single-player. Maybe the AI doesn’t always offer the best challenge, but there are few things more rewarding than starting a new Civilization game on a lower difficulty—to get accustomed to the new systems—and gradually work back up to King or Emperor. For years, I was stuck at Lord difficulty in [i]Civilization V[/i], and then I made the breakthrough of managing my city specialists; the next thing I knew, I was up to Emperor.

 

1UPT (One Unit Per Tile) worked very well in this game’s predecessor, although there were some flaws that had to be ironed out. It was up to the Community Patch Project to fix the civilian traffic jams that irritated everyone, but this time around the civilization traffic jams appear to be there by design, not by accident. Missionaries and apostles are the worst offenders, though there were many occasions throughout the reign of CiV that it was necessary to declare war on someone because their missionaries stood blithely in the way. Given the religious fervor on display by nearly all the world leaders, it’s sure to be a problem through every playthrough.

About to get my head kicked in on CiV.

About to get my head kicked in on CiV.

 

One advantage the predecessor had with 1UPT was that movement costs were clear and easily understood. Planning an attack against a city surrounded by jungle on one side and mountains on the other took tactical work, and it was fun for that reason; it was a genuine and fairly real-to-life representation of why the United States didn’t stand a chance in Vietnam. Building roads across the empire didn’t just connect cities; it was crucial to allow armies to get where they needed to be in a reasonable time frame. Much has been written about the changing of Workers into Builders, how roads are constructed by Caravans, and other gameplay changes, but there were always going to be such changes to the formula; it happens every game. Remember when each city was a mess of roads because every tile had to be connected to the city for its resources to be used? Change is fine. The real problem here is that it’s almost guesswork, moving armies across the world and over various terrains, and the caravan-constructed road appears to have no effect on movement cost.

 

It was once feared that culture and policies were doomed to become an alternative technology tree and that, based on the trends of [i]Civilization V[/i], everything was ultimately going to “become a technology tree.” Civics policies certainly did so, and each civic gives the player a few civic policy cards that can be activated. Government types have returned, too, and different government types, in addition to providing their own bonuses, allow for different combinations of cards to be used. For example, the Classical Republic government allows for two Economic Policy cards, but no Military Policy cards. It’s a neat, modular system that provides lots of ways to ensure that the government is maximized for the land and people.

 

Cities no longer occupy a single tile, and this is certainly a change for the better. It’s “the” feature of [i]Civilization VI[/i], just as 1UPT was “the” feature of CiV. Rather than simply building a Barracks, one must select a tile within the city’s borders and build an Encampment upon it, after which a Barracks can be built in the Encampment. As a nice touch, units then constructed by the city then appear on the tile that contains the Encampment, rather than the City Center, which makes tile selection all the more important.

Graphics have changed from the realistic style of V to a cartoonish style heavily reminiscent of [i]Civilization IV[/i], largely regarded as the apex of the series. The UI is the best yet for a Civilization game, though information can be a bit hard to find. Whether one likes or dislikes the style will be a matter of preference, but the Fog of War is absolutely terrible. Rather than lowering the brightness on tiles not currently within view of a unit, here they are colored brown and bereft of distinguishing details, a look that is drawn from medieval maps. It looks absolutely [i]terrible[/i] to have a sea of brown wash over the land like it’s [i]Dragon Age: Origins[/i].

mess

 

The terrain is more important than ever. It became extremely important with the advent of 1UPT, but now it’s of critical significance—[i]the[/i] deciding factor in the game. Placing districts upon a tile obviously means that tile cannot have a refinement constructed by a builder, and there are interesting ways that the districts and improvements work off each other. A bit of logic is all that’s really needed to take advantage of this, though. Don’t throw an Encampment right in the middle of a bunch of Farms, for example. Rivers, it has been noted, are important once again, instead of simply being the early game movement hindrance they were in the last entry; in Civ IV, of course, rivers were vital for forming free trade routes between cities. In CiV, they were an irritant that slowed movement through the early game and then dictated whether the city could build a Water Mill. That’s basically what they do here, except it’s more complex than the Boolean question of whether the city center is on a river.

 

The district concept doesn’t change the gameplay nearly as much as 1UPT did, and the result is that this feels like the sort of addition that would come via an expansion. Whether the player builds a Barracks or designates a tile to be the military district and [i]then[/i] builds a Barracks isn’t very different from simply building the Barracks. It’s a cool idea, and the synergies between the terrain, districts, and improvements offer plenty of possibilities for maximizing productivity, but it doesn’t actually represent a fundamental departure from how cities are constructed.

In fact, the whole District thing is pretty much the meat & potatoes of the game. Beyond that, it’s just Civilization V with worsened AI and changes to city-states and religion. Well, I say “changes” to religion, but it wasn’t really changed; the only difference is that you can now only construct religious units like missionaries in a city where you’ve made a religious district and plopped a temple or something there.

It was when I was building my third Commerce District that I realized what was going on. This isn’t anything even remotely new; it’s just a slightly different way of doing it. See, in ages past, it was always best for the player to have a few specialized cities: one that focused on culture buildings, one that focused on economic buildings, one that focused on military units, and, most importantly, one that focused on production. There’s an obvious flaw in the system here, isn’t there? That’s right, because Production is a generic resource that is used to build economic buildings, military units, culture buildings, and pretty much everything else except missionaries. And that is where Civilization 6 screws up.

The only way they could have made this District system truly shine is if they added a few new currencies to the game. Why not? There are already several: Science, Production, Food, Culture, Gold, Faith, Great Person Points, and probably some others I am not thinking of at the moment. The obvious flaw in this problem is that an industrial city–that is, a city that focuses heavily on production, subsumes all the others. Production is king, because production is literally used to build all the other things. What good will it do the player to have a bustling Cultural District if it takes 57 turns to build the next cultural building because the city’s a cultural powerhouse, not a production powerhouse?

A city that focused on culture, for example, will have a bunch of culture buildings that it has built over the last 60~ turns to produce 31 culture per turn. That’s a bit high, but whatever. It’s not important. If that city comes under attack because some long-standing ally like Genghis Khan decided to straight-up betray you–as he tends to do–and your army is going to take 5 or more turns to get there, then that city is gone. All of that culture will do nothing to cut down on the 24 turns it takes to build one freaking Crossbowman. If, however, it was  Production City, then it would be able to produce those 7 culture buildings in 35-40 turns and would be able to produce the crossbowman in 3 or 4 turns. It’s the core of how the game is designed: Production is King, because Production is literally what allows the player to increase everything else. Production is at the heart of it.

Need to build a Market to increase Gold? Then you need Production to build it. Need to build an Amphitheater to increase Culture? Then you need Production to build it. Need to build a University to increase Science? Then you need Production to build it. Need to build a Crossbowman to pick of Gayghis Khan’s army? Then you need Production to build it. This is the nature of the game, and, as I said, I’ve been playing Civilization since my senior year of high school. Before that I was busy playing in a rock band and dating the hottest girl at the school, so you’ll excuse me for not nerding it out with Civ 1 and 2.

With each new release, I begin at the lower difficulty settings to familiarize myself with the new mechanics, and I work my way back up to Emperor or Deity–whatever the hardest difficulty is named. I’ve got a video somewhere of me easily claiming a Domination Victory on Emperor in Civilization V, and that’s no small feat, considering the entire Happiness system of V is meant to discourage Domination Victories. Of the victory possibilities, Diplomacy is the easiest by a huge margin; without even trying, it’s easy to become Allies with most of the city-states in the game by the time the United Nations is formed, and every time the vote occurs the two civilizations who ranked highest receive 2 additional delegates; it becomes a matter of three or four more sessions, at the most, before the Diplomacy Victory is won. Cultural Victory is probably the hardest to pull off, but primarily because it’s so freaking boring and tedious.

The point is: I know how to play Civilization games, and I’m damned good at them. I love Civilization V the most because it finally added a tactical layer to the game, making it much more in-line with chess in being a combination of strategy and tactics, and yes–I’m even including Civilization IV: BTS in that estimation. I think a lot of people who say that Civ IV is the best would be very surprised if they went back to it and tried to give it another go. It’s terrible compared to V. Don’t get me wrong. BTS was perfection itself when it was in its prime, but we are a long way from that. The ridiculously overpowered religion dictating all diplomatic efforts was a particular problem, never mind the Stacks of Doom.

Civilization VI aims to prevent this problem of Production being King… by forcing players to specialize cities whether they like it or not. I still ended up with an Industrial District in every city, because otherwise build times were absolutely ridiculous. It comes back to that point above: What is the reason for having a Cultural City if it takes 25 turns to build the next Culture building, if I can specialize it in Production and take 17 turns to pump out all the cultural buildings?

There isn’t one. It’s just a broken gimmick and a half-baked idea.

The only way it could have worked is if:

  1. The new currency Conscription was added to the game. This is basically Production,but it can only be used to build military units and military buildings, in the same way that religious units can only be purchased with Faith. Valor, Bravery, Conscription–whatever Firaxis wanted to call it. This way, there’s actually a point in specializing a military city. It would produce more Valor, and since Valor is used to build military units and military buildings, it doesn’t hurt the city to specialize in it instead of Production.
    1. As an addition to this, obviously, military units could still be constructed with raw production. The Encampment District would specifically allow x per turn Valor to be generated, and additional construction of buildings could be done with either Valor or Production. Districts, of course, are built only with Production. Each Armory increases the Valor yield of the city by +2, each Barracks by +1, and so on. A Swordsman can be built with 180 Production–or however the hell much it costs–or with 5 Valor Points. The same rule would still apply that only one unit can be constructed at a time–the city couldn’t build a Swordsman with its Valor while building a Commerce District with its Production.
      1. Or why couldn’t it? Isn’t that the point of building the Districts, after all? This would actually be a fantastic way of handling it, and giving the Districts actual utility versus being boolean triggers that allow the production of specialized buildings as they are now. Why can’t I use the new Valor resource to build my Musketman while the City Center uses its Production to build a Commerce District on the other side of town? However, Production could not be split: one could not use 30% of the Production to build the Swordsman and 70% to build the Commerce District; each currency can only be used for one thing at a time. This makes the Districts far more valuable, as not only would it be faster to build a Swordsman with Valor, but using Valor to build the Swordsman also frees up the City Center to use its Production to build something. Come on, Firaxis, how did you guys not come up with this?
  2. The new currency Artistry was added to the game. This is basically Production, but it can only be used to build cultural buildings and cultural units. The game is not comprised only of Great Generals, and neither is Planet Earth. There should probably be normal Artist, Musician, and Writer units that can be used in much the same way as Missionaries, except that they generate one-time cultural bonuses or one-time tourism bonuses. Obviously, all of these units would be stackable with each other, but not with themselves. We don’t want to increase the roadblocks, traffic jams, and choke points. An Artist can occupy the same tile as an Archer and a Missionary.
    1. Similar to the above, the Artistry being produced in the city’s Cultural District could be used to build a Musician or a Concert Hall while the Valor in the city’s Military District could be used to build a Swordsman or an Armory and while the City Center could be using its Production to construct a new Holy District.

The Culture Tech Tree needs to be completely reworked so that it’s… not a tech tree. C’mon, Firaxis. This was the concern we expressed when we saw the Civic Policies of Civilization V! This is precisely what we said: “It’s cool, but we’re worried that culture is going to become just another tech tree.” And voila–the next game releases, and culture is just another tech tree, and tied strangely to government systems and civic policies. I realize that the connection between government systems, civic policies, and culture has been in place for a very long time, but it’s time to separate the things, especially now that Culture Victory is a serious thing. There is no logical relationship between a people’s culture and their governmental systems or their civic possibilities. I realize that you need a gameplay currency that allows for the progressive unlocking of governmental systems, and that it didn’t go over so well when they were tied to technology as they were in the past, but that should tell you that you’re barking up the wrong trees.

As an anarchist, I would actually argue that you’re looking at it backward, as governmental systems are the primary stifling force against cultural growth, but that’s another matter.

I don’t have an alternative system for the Civic system here in VI, but please get rid of the tech tree that it has become. That was exactly what we were worried would happen after Civilization V. I’m sure you can still find posts about it in the CivFanatics forum.

Map clutter has to go, too. Holy crap, why is the map so freaking cluttered? It is borderline impossible to tell what anything is, and I had resources sitting on my map for hundreds of years going unused because:

  1. I’m honestly not sure whether there’s even a benefit to grabbing yet another resource of tea or cows. In previous games, this information was presented clearly and unambiguously. “Build a pasture = +1 Production.” It’s a no-brainer, even if I had a billion cows already. And even though I never build mounted units, except the occasional Knight, I have dozens upon dozens of horses.
  2. The map makes it terribly unclear whether the resource has been improved or not.
  3. And never freaking mind searching the map for non-descript icons washed in the hideous brown of the Fog of War to see if there is some coal or oil I could grab. Who on the development team came up with that? “Hey, let’s wash the entire Fog of War in shit.” “What do you mean?” “I mean let’s take all the color and replace it with the color of shit.” “Wow! You deserve a promotion!”

Civilization V was a bloody mess at launch, too. It was, in fact, the last game that I bought on launch day, until Dragon Age: Inquisition came along and reminded me keenly why I stopped buying games until they’d been patched a few times. After lots of patches and a few expansions, Civilization V proved to be an excellent game–my favorite in the series, though I think I have fonder memories of IV. If you take my advice and add some new currencies to actually give value to these districts besides making them pointless gateways to other buildings, then I think Civilization 6 could go on to rival Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword. And fix the Fog of War. It’s ridiculous.

But that’s all the Districts are now: gateways that determine what type of buildings can and can’t be built in a city. They’re methods of forcing specialized cities onto the player, even though nothing was done to curve the awesome power of Production–and thus every city gets an Industrial district and becomes specialized not in Culture but Industry & Culture, not in Military but Industry & Military, and not in commerce but Industry & Commerce. It’s a gimmick that limits what the player can do, rather than giving the player new ways to improve.

And that is the very definition of “bad game design.”

 

 

Hiatus Here

I am going on hiatus from DiMezzo Gaming. I’ve been doing a lot of reorganizing, and I’ve started a number of new projects recently. I’m considering replacing this with a gaming-oriented podcast at regular intervals, but one article a week here is just a waste. For today, I’m simply going to put up an article at the usual place (www.shemalediary.wordpress.com ), so stay tuned there to find out what I’m doing with the brand.