The Open World Crab

A lateral journey

I really don’t like the idea that open world design is an evolution of gaming.  I think it’s progressive in the fact that our technology can now handle it, and that we can create such things, but a game going from linear or another design to open world is not necessarily an evolution.  I think it’s a lateral change.

Like most things in design, from art to games, changing the rulesets always have consequences.  You can’t change the variables in your style and design without consequence, no matter how abstract you make it seem.  In abstraction you willingly remove authorial interpretation and put it up for the consumer.  I’ve probably said this a million times, and I will say again, I believe authorial intent to be important.  The mistake is always believing it to be the most important.  How important authorial intent is depends on the context of who made it and who is consuming it.  

Open world styles will give up some paths for others.  It’s difficult in a linear game to have the Red Dead Redemption moments that are the source of much hilarity or amazing feats.  You won’t get that in DOOM, but you won’t get the level designs in Red Dead unless you’re playing a mission or something.  Open world isn’t so much an evolution as it is a choice in design.  It could be that a game’s style better matches the open world setting, and even then we sacrifice much.  

One of the things that tends to be commonly sacrificed is story.  To have a story work well in an open world means spreading content.  You give up pacing if the player is allowed to go on a 20 hour journey into those mountains on the map.  Subnautica would be very unfortunate as a linear game, but there is a story in there and the writers are restricted to building it in a way that allows it to be approached in any way and timing the player chooses.  You can indeed choose to go view that beacon that popped up on your HUD, or you can spend more time harvesting that copper.  

You give up development time for the advanced writing you’re going to have to make if the player wants to get creative with their progress.  As I previously wrote in an article, most open world games have custom characters, and that means sacrificing some story telling developments of your choice.  Sacrificing these things are not necessarily bad things, but they’re exactly that: sacrifices.

An unfortunate example of not sacrificing things just to fit your bill is Far Cry 5. The game is a fun open world sandbox, but too many things are squished in just to try and be the open world sand box game. They want a story, but they don’t want it on the terms of an open world. You are constantly interrupted by the story and the open world feels staggered because of it. You are restricted in some points in the story, and then it openly mocks how bad your “choices” were when you couldn’t really make choices at all. The whole time I was just kind of thinking, “Well, I was just trying to wander around and do stuff.” I felt pushed to the point where the story was an annoyance and felt unworthy of my time. Far Cry 5 could have been good if it was story based shooter or the open world jaunt, but it chose both, and it did not work. Can you implement a story into an open world well? Yes, you can, but you have to play within the consequences of your designs. Otherwise your designs will end up competing with each other.


The linear world is easier to control.  As a designer you can set the stage, and you can arrange the scenes.  What do you want the player to see?  What do you want the player to feel?  You can get some of these things in the open world.  How far along the spectrum of the two extremes do you want to pull it?  

I think the other difficult thing is changing development mindset when designing open world games.  I don’t think The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is some sort of evolution.  It’s just an open world with a lot of design implementations in it.  They made sure climbing, running, and gliding felt good.  And yet, those are not things that need to be in an open world game.  They took into account how locations looked at different angles as players were approaching them.  Hills, mountains, trees and all geography was taken into account.  Where they hid treasure and secrets were considered in the design of the landscape.  These are all things that you also consider in more linear games.  It all goes back to design, and how well you implement it.

You can always create a systemic game and plop large swathes of land and say it’s an open world game, and you will get those open world moments naturally, but designing the world to also be a huge, explorable set piece is what sets Breath of the Wild apart from other games.  Red Dead Redemption 2 leans towards the large swathes of land with random events, but that’s the whole feel of Red Dead.  It is a large, untamed land full of animals, mystery, and highwaymen.  There is a balance between what is handcrafted and what is meant to be accidentally encountered.  You can say they handcrafted what wouldn’t be handcrafted.  What you intend to do with your open world can be a guidepost to how you want it to be designed. 

There are a fair amount of games where it’s just a content dump.  You can feel some of that in the Assassin’s Creed series, especially in the earlier games.  Dynasty Warriors 9 takes the franchise and sets it in the open world, but it really doesn’t adapt the series well to the new design.  What you do and what your guidepost is, which is usually some sort of franchise core concept, is what can really hold your game design together.  


There is nothing wrong with having open world design.  There is nothing wrong with having linear design.  The only thing wrong is not having good design.

Thanks for reading.  I hope you’re all staying safe out there.
– Elise

It’s Okay to Grind

A little bit of that

There is a parallel in gaming that always makes me think.  In a lot of RPGs, especially MMOs, we are just grinding to get that next weapon or cosmetic.  Every day, every hour, every minute, we’re moving that little progress bar forward.  Sometimes when we do this it’s that little movement that makes us feel satisfied.  I feel great that I filled that exp bar again.  I suppose in those situations it can seem a little more justified, as that skill point can make a difference in what I can do.  

Maybe we’re grinding because we are undertrained for that boss that we died from.  Maybe I just want to open another engram in Destiny.  Sometimes we’re grinding the grind, like in The Sims, where I’m just trying to earn enough money to get a new piece of furniture.  We’re literally playing a game where we grind to earn money just like in real life when we could be doing the exact same thing in real life.  The weird thing is that one of the versions is considered entertainment.

Is there something wrong with just chipping away at life to get to the next thing?  While I believe that enjoying the journey is important, what if we really just want to learn that skill or get that sound system for the home entertainment room?  I think there is a lot of good that can be found in the grind, especially if it involves community or friends.

Let me be clear, it can be a negative thing.  It’s often not a good sign if we’re grinding months away of our lives just to get that one object.  It’s probable that the satisfaction won’t last very long.  This applies to both real life and in game.  Maybe that weapon wasn’t as exciting as we thought it was going to be when we finally wield it.  I think what I’m getting at is that the best situations are when the grind and the end result are both enjoyable.  Sometimes the grind itself isn’t enjoyable.  I’m thinking about long term goals like getting to a good place in physical health, earning money only to spend it on fixing something in the house, or the grind of working at a place I don’t want to work at but I still have to to survive.  Some grinds are more valuable to me than others, and cutting some out or adding some in can greatly affect my health.  This includes games.

Some games won’t be worth my time anymore.  I stopped playing Destiny 2 because I’m a lonely person who pushes away those who try to get close to me, but also PvE as a lone person was not great.  The grind for the engrams/lootboxes got even more tedious with their newer updates.  I love cosmetics.  I like the grind to search for an item, but…who am I doing it for?  The games weave in and out of my life depending on how important those grinds feel to me.  Guild Wars 2 appears every once in a while when my small community pops in to play for a couple of weeks.  Is my daily maintenance of Genshin Impact worth it?  The gameplay is always fun, and I love the characters, so it remains.  I still play Path of Exile, but I’m running out of themed characters to make.  Will it still be worth it to me?  I guess that depends on why I’m doing it.

Some people can go for hours because they’re with friends.  Or maybe they just really want that Dragonbash stuff in Guild Wars.  I think for me, while there is some feeling of missing out at times, I grind mostly to unwind.  If I don’t have the mental strength to commit to a story, the grind is the way to go.  I am often in a bad way because of a collection of mental illnesses, but grinding is something that is alright for me during those times.  And sometimes it’s the opposite.  

I think the idea that grinding is such a bad thing is not inherent.  It all depends on how we use it.  Sometimes you need a break.  It’s okay to slow down and just chip away at something, hang out with friends, or just recharge.  There is nothing wrong with that.  Maybe design-wise grinding can be bad, but how we use it can be healthy.  It is easy to fall into bad habits of letting the grind takeover our lives because we don’t want to be doing things, but with good management I think grinding can be a refuge.  It can be a refuge from our refuge of gaming.  We just need some time to not worry. 

It is perhaps in times like these that that kind of feeling is a sanctuary to us: a place where we can rest and say, “It’s okay.”

Thanks for reading.  I’ll see you next time.
– Elise

Why I Love: Warhammer: Vermintide 2

Rat rat rat rat rat rat rat

I’ll admit that I don’t know that much about Warhammer.  But I was craving co-op games and stumbled upon Warhammer Endtimes: Vermintide.  I got a close friend to play it with me, and then we got another person.  So there were three of us just playing this random weird game about killing rats in a cool fantasy setting.  It was good.  It was fun.  Still didn’t really get it, but whatever.

Then Vermintide 2 came out and then…for some reason we just got really hooked.  Actually, that’s not true.   There are good reasons why, and that’s the whole point of this article.  Sorry for being misleading there.

When making a game, you have to make sure it is fun at its core.  Unless you’re going for something artsy, you better have something truly enjoyable at the center of it all.  You need to make the game feel good to move and to do the actions you perform the most.  Mario’s jumping needs to feel good.  Celeste’s movement needs to feel right.  Miyamoto spent an hour just climbing trees during the prototype for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.  The prototypes for Splatoon were just blocks of tofu shooting color at each other.  These are all Nintendo games and I am both sorry and not sorry for that.

So long as we can convey the game design using the prototype, most of the time the graphics can just be blocks.  It needs to be fun at its core.  So, what is Vermintide’s core?  First-person melee combat.  I know there are ranged weapons, and those are great too, but the melee combat is where it is at in this game.  

Each weapon type plays differently and they each have different sets of swings, chops, and stabs.  It’s fun mastering each one’s style and how to fight in frenetic combat.  When the game calls itself (well, it was called Endtimes, but I think it’s just called Vermintide now) Endtimes, it is not kidding.  There are tons and tons of rats and northlanders that are running at you.  Chopping with your axe and cutting through an enemy and then feeling your weapon get caught in the shoulder of the next is amazing.  Smacking a chunky chaos warrior and feeling your weapon get stuck in the armor.  Or swinging really wide with a sweeping weapon like a hammer and just smashing through four or more enemies at once.  These things are all part of the intense combat.  

But it’s not just slicing and dicing, just like its ancestor Left 4 Dead there are special enemies that fit really well because of their Warhammer background.  Aforementioned chaos warriors, assassin rats, ratling gunners, and more will keep you on your toes and force your team to work together. Bosses such as rat ogres will smash your party apart if you don’t work together and keep your wits about you.  

I’m not a person that really likes hyper violence.  Which is ironic because this game is exactly that.  And I do love the combat.  I feel like it’s the juxtaposition of us having to fight for our lives when the world is ending kind of situation that makes it not as disturbing to me.  I still feel bad about killing enemies sometimes.  Even chaos warriors.  Especially slave rats.  Especially when they burn to death.  Man, even blightstormers, which cast huge areas of effect storms that are annoying, I sometimes feel bad about killing.  Granted these people are pretty corrupt, but still…

The tension and relief design really feels like an epic fantasy adventure.  I feel like I’m in a war in the Lord of the Rings universe or something.  I don’t know of any game that does it better or comes close. Maybe Deep Rock Galactic.  But I think it’s the high amount of well designed, melee combat that really makes it great.  

While that’s all good, what makes the icing on the cake for Vermintide is how much the developers really care about their project.  Vermintide was a buggy game.  I’m not saying that it’s okay to release buggy games, but it says a lot when developers spend a lot of time actually fixing the bugs that plague their games.  There is constant progress on them fixing things, and you can actually feel the difference.  The disparity between the attitude of developers is sad.  I suppose it helps if the development studio is smaller.  It feels less like a boss saying, “Just deal with it.” and more like a friend that says, “I’m working on it.”  They feel so human.  And that’s good, both that they try and they’re clear they are doing so because they love their game, not just because people are complaining.  It means that when people aren’t complaining, they will continue to improve, and that is what really separates developers.

And that also leads me to the way they handle characters.  You can tell they love their characters.  Each character is so loveable and the way they interact with each other is entertaining.  Even now, after having played over 500 hours of the game, I’m not tired of any of the character’s lines.  I feel like they’re always adding new lines as well.  It’s something that I noticed the Path of Exile developers do.  It’s not always about adding giant blocks of content or fixing bugs.  Sometimes it’s about going back to old stuff and improving on it.  Without prompt from the players or anything.  It’s like going to an old painting and improving upon it.  It shows they really care about it.  Or they have extra time, heh.  But even then that means they’re still thinking in their extra time, what else can I do?  

Vermintide is one of the few games where I’ve played up to the hardest (non-modded) difficulty.  I love Cataclysm difficulty because it’s so intense.  You have to perform your best.  I believe I mentioned this before when I was talking about playing to just focus on something.  It really brings me out of other mindsets and just lets me focus.  If I want to just not think about depressing things I can just hop on cataclysm with my friends.  

Which reminds me of one last thing.  This was added later in the game but the Chaos Wastes update added a roguelite campaign and that has just extended the life of the game by such a huge amount of time I really feel like the game could be endless at this point.  And I don’t mind that at all.  It’s one of those games where if they kept updating it for the next ten years I’d definitely be playing it for the next ten years.  

I didn’t say anything about the classes or the talents.  I like those too, but what I really love about Vermintide is how it mastered the core gameplay of intense co-op combat and how fun and loved the game is by the developers.  I love the characters so much and I will never not enjoy this game.  It’s that thing where I love games, I love when other people enjoy games, I love teaching people to play and enjoy games, and I love when people enjoy making games.  

And there are all these elements about that in this game.  However, there is one…caveat.  And that is that this is a co-op game, and people can make or break the experience.  I am very fortunate to have a group of three to play with (which is rarely the case in other games for me),  and they’re a great joy to play with.  I hope that if you try this game you have some friends or siblings or someone close to play with, because it’s so much better like that.  Maybe the game only feels so good because I have a good group.  That’s very possible.  I apologize if it doesn’t end up as fun as I’ve written due to social factors.

I still think that the game design and character designs are great.  And I still stand by it by putting Warhammer: Vermintide II: (Chaos Wastes) at #33 on the ULTRA.  Huh, I think that’s one of the highest ranking games I’ve written a Why I Love on the ULTRA.  I think I write less on the higher ranked games because it tends to be more sentimental, but I’m sure I will write about them eventually.
Thanks for reading, and I really hope you enjoy the Skulls event stuff going on today!  Be safe!  And happy gaming!

Elise

Breaking The Fourth Window

SPOILERS FOR VARIOUS GAMES AHEAD

Note: This is a little bit rant-ish.

I have a very hard time with fourth wall breaking moments in games.  Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but that’s not the reason why it bothers me.  It really bothers me because it’s almost always assumed to be a “Hi, I got you there, didn’t I?”  in a world where…you’re not allowed to be…not gotten.


I developed a thought pattern in my younger years that was meant to discipline myself into doing the right thing whether or not someone is looking.  That was the goal.  The goal is to become a better person.  And this eventually passed down to my games and my art.  I never treat characters as characters, I always treat them like people.  Does this mean some of my decisions in choice based games are boring?  Yes, I think more often than not it does end up being like that, because I care about how they feel and how I feel about them.  

Sometimes there are choices that have minimal consequence other than getting a rise out of someone or a joke.  And yet, I still refuse to make those jokes.  I’m looking at you Traveler from Genshin Impact.  I’m fairly consistent in that I want the choices I make in games to be as close to the good choices I can make in real life.

I’ve lost so many lives trying to see if I could save someone that did not have a trigger to save them. I’ve lost so many rounds and lives in games because I felt I had to go back to save the AI ally.  In real life, if we’re just talking about real life, this would’ve literally been a waste of time.  There would be so little consequence if I just finished the level without them.   So when times appear that it turns out I could save them and I just assumed the game wouldn’t let me, I feel cheated.   When a character comes along and does the fourth wall breaking thing in a game, I actually feel cheated, because in games, you’re not always allowed to do the right thing.


Sometimes doing the right thing is much more difficult.  In Assassin’s Creed: Origins there were many assassination targets I wanted to leave alive, and yet no matter how hard I tried, they would still end up somehow dying due to a cutscene or force.  I put forth extra effort, only to be punished by the system.

Oppositely, when a game like Undertale comes along where I realized I could just be nice to all the enemies, I did that.  Except…at the last battle where you have to bring Asgore to low health.  I refused to even attack.  I spent hours and hours trying to figure out what I did wrong and why I couldn’t get past him.  I can’t tell you how many times he nodded, noting that we have fought a billion times with me dying.  After spending so darn long on it, I decided to give in and look up what I had to do.  I had to hit him, and once again I felt punished for trying to execute my “thinking outside the box” fourth wall-ism that these games try to employ.

It doesn’t matter if I follow the rules where games don’t let you do much, or do my best to be my best regardless of those rules, I will be punished by the choice-based games.  I never felt like the argument of “getting caught off guard” by a game’s fourth wall breaking to be valid because I am almost always punished for my choices either way.  What’s the point of getting “caught off guard” if the consequence is the same?

It used to be naivete, but after counseling and therapy, I understand better my relationship with these characters in video games.   It’s not okay to make fun of them just because they’re in a game or that they can’t see me.  Just like how I strive myself to not be like that or talk badly of other people behind their backs.  But what about the discomfort I feel?  


I’m not saying I’m immune to the feeling of fear and juxtaposition when a character, especially those with ill intentions, notices me as a player.  I’m scared of a lot of things, haha, and that is definitely not an exception.  But I also feel terribly shaken because I’m sad.

I’m sad that this character, even if they’re doing something wrong, has to resort to breaking into another world just to feel better about themselves.  I feel sad that I could not provide more for them.  I feel sad that I have to let them make their own choices, and even perhaps that some are programmed to be something they’d rather not want to be.  I feel sad that Monika in Doki Doki Literature Club had to resort to such extremes to feel comfort.  I feel sad that the evil characters in Undertale feel like their life disasters justified them to make those wrong choices.  All those characters that had to make a choice between bad or worse because of what choices I made or the things I had to do in a game affect me. If the roles were reversed, I wouldn’t blame the player, but I’d at least want them to know how I feel.

I feel bad because I have gone through the same forks in the road in life and I understand those justifications.  I’m sure, or rather I at least hope, that you as a reader also understand the difference between being bitter or better from life’s trials.  Sometimes in our anger and with unwanted results choosing to stay strong is difficult and the other route totally seems justified.  Sometimes I feel like it’s justified because the creators of their world didn’t inform visitor’s like me that I could even do things that could help them out.  

I know these characters are programmed a certain way.  

These feelings don’t make the wrong things these characters have done the right thing, but it does make them understood, and only through understanding can these people have any chance of getting better.  

Thanks for reading, I’ll see you next time.
Elise


– Yes, I know.  People always tell me that I waste so much time and am a dork for doing things like this, but I really want what’s best for the characters even outside of this whole meta of games.  And yes, like an emotionally and psychologically healthy relationship with anyone, I do set boundaries with characters. I’ll be okay.

Gender: Locked

What gender locking means for the player

Lost Ark just came out, and just like Black Desert Online there are classes that lock genders for different classes.  A lot of people hate gender locking.  Gamers nowadays think it’s very archaic.  But what does it really mean for us from a design standpoint?

I think gender locking classes can be good in the same way normal characters are presented in any normal game.  Path of Exile has gender locked classes, but I think it’s entirely acceptable.  The characters in Path of Exile are specific people.  They have backgrounds and personalities.  They have some different values and reactions to enemies and bosses.  In Path of Exile, the classes are represented by individuals.  

There are very few games where classes are individuals, and they can be changed in gender.  Diablo III is always the first one that pops in my head, but I see that as more of a greater detail by the developers.  It is really a cherry on top of what is really needed.  The characters in Diablo III are individual as well, and while there seems to be a canon gender, female and male genders are represented.  It is a lot of work, especially because there is voice acting.  But again, almost unnecessary because we’re playing individual people.  It is also possible to lose some sort of intended feeling of the character by providing multiple genders.  

Once you allow characters to actually make their own characters through customization and classes, I feel it very difficult to justify gender locking.  I suppose you can work around that if there is a race that is only one gender.  But that further expresses the main thing we sacrifice as we move towards customization: story-telling.  

Every time we take something out of customization, it is more an opportunity for us to tell the story of the character, or in the case I mentioned above, a species.  How much of that and how you use it can make or break the characters of your game.  Go extreme with characters like in the Borderlands series, where most of the games (in anticipation of Wonderlands) you choose specific characters and their lines really bring out personalities and backstory.  Or go the complete opposite like in Skyrim where, while the arc is fairly similar to everyone else, the way you look, what your character is good at, and where they hail from is all about what you want it to be.

Going in the middle either requires a lot of extra work, Diablo III, or a lot of sacrifice, Mass Effect.  Although there is a lot you can do with Commander Shepard, there is only so far you can pull their personality and choices apart before the game stops you.  So I say that gender locking is okay, because the middle ground is very difficult to get right, and if you don’t fill in those holes with either backstory or customization, you are missing out on giving the player great opportunities and experiences in their gameplay.  It’s going to feel empty.

The biggest sacrifice the writer makes in adding customization is backstory.  That’s okay, because if you’re making your own character you are likely also making your own backstory.  But if they’re going to lock story-telling elements like that up, they are kind of expected to present something good.  Just a thought.

Elise

Committing to Never

Designing and playing games that don’t end

There are a lot of reasons why we play video games.  And for a good amount of us, and I can definitely say for myself, we play for the story.

So what about those people still playing after the story?

The design of games that don’t end have been there since the very beginning.  It’s certainly not as common anymore, but remember high scores?  Arcade games carry this in nearly all genres.  If we look back with the games we have now, they don’t even seem necessary.  We see this in top down shooters like Space Invaders, platformers like Donkey Kong, and even fighting games like Street Fighter.  As I have said, these are all arcade games, which means playing them for longer periods of time means more coins out of your pocket.  So of course they want you to be ambitious.  However, this kind of thing continued on even when arcade cabinets were no longer your main source of gaming.

Super Mario Bros., a game that was beloved by many people in their homes, still has a high score counter.  In fact, people use the high score things for other meta-competitions as well.  We have people winning the game with the fastest speed, but lowest score possible.  You can actually watch some of those speedruns online.  They are fantastic and awe-inspiring.  But, Super Mario Bros. hair-thin story does end.  The challenges eventually do cease.  And these kinds of things are normal for all these story games.  And yet, people keep playing.

Around the time when less arcade-y games removed their scores, ew kinds of designs started popping up where there was no end.  These can go from optional multiplayer games like Diablo and Genshin Impact, or we can go with MMOs like Lineage, Maplestory, Guild Wars, all those other MMOs we see online.  Then there’s also games made for multiplayer like Battlefield and new genres like battle royales and MOBAs like PUBG and DoTA 2 respectively. 

What is driving these games to exist forever?  And…why do we keep playing them?

Where is the fun?  

Never ending games exist solely because of where the fun comes from.  If a game’s fun is the story, it ends where the story ends.  We already talked about arcade games and them siphoning money out of you, so let’s start with games like Super Mario Bros. where the ending is meant to be exactly that, the ending. 

People create their own games with the games.  I’m talking about the speedrunners and the meta-competition.  I remember playing Super Mario Bros. where the main goal was to not kill any enemies, making some platforming elements rather difficult.  

I think a great example of this is GiantGrantGames on Youtube where he played Starcraft II and he had to play through the story without losing a single unit.  I’ve had times playing critically failed games and we set our own rules to laugh and joke throughout the whole thing, even if the controls were terrible.  Ultimately for these situations, we are the ones creating the game and we are the ones creating the fun.  That was where the reward, the fun, was.

Some games keep us having fun by having solid gameplay.  I replay Mario games because the platforming is so solid.  I keep playing Genshin Impact because the fighting gameplay is very enjoyable, even if I’m just fighting a similar group of Hilichurls for my dailies.  A lot of people play battle royale games or shooter games like Battlefield over and over again because each bit of adrenaline rush is what they’re chasing.  It’s all about that energy and (hopefully) fun.

Many MMO games like The Division series or the Destiny series have reward-based fun.  The gameplay can be great, but the goal that is frankly placed by the developers is that you need item X.  You need that next thing.  You need that next skin/cosmetic.  While this is okay, it walks dangerously close to negative game design.  If we’re only playing for the final reward, it is easy for the game to feel like a chore.  

These kinds of items are usually dropped from events or other time-limited situations.  It’s about chasing that next thing, but if the gameplay or the story within is not enough the game can end up being unfun.  And who wants to play something unfun? 

I think it’s a mistake to believe that the endgame is the only thing that matters with games like these.  Both the main game and the endgame have their strengths to keep them entertaining, but it’s all about how they are implemented.  Genshin Impact’s events usually have great rewards, but there is usually some overarching story as well, so it’s not just mindlessly killing mobs.  While I am not a professional game designer by any means, I believe there to be a solution to making things like the endgame more fun. 

Not surprisingly, most of it can be solved by having the gameplay itself be fun, so when there are new things to be done, new goals to be reached, it is still fun to play.

There are, even still, outliers that continually bring people back to certain games: the prestige of holding your rank, or if you’re like me, forgetting some of the story and you simply want to enjoy it again.  There are also things that can be predatory things like daily quests that make you feel like you missed out if you’re not coming back.  Ironically, I could point that finger back at Genshin Impact again even though I previously praised that.  But that’s just the thing, isn’t it?  For me, it is not a problem, but for others, that is definitely a negative.  

So after all this, the meta-games, the competition, the stories, the gameplay, the reward-based goals, the ranks.  After all these things, which of them brings the fun for you?  That’s what matters.  I’m not trying to play the “everyone’s a winner” kind of play here, but I’m asking the question of how can we enter, or even create, an environment that helps us have fun?  I think some developers do this in earnest and truly try to create good, infinitely fun environments, while others are there just for your money (or that could be a corporate thing, it depends).  

I know I’m always doing this kind of thing where I put the responsibility on our, the gamers, shoulders.  But…where is the fun for you?  Find that out, and then use that time to enjoy it.  Don’t feel guilty about it.  Don’t go back to the game that isn’t fun for you.  Don’t let that sunk-cost fallacy catch you.  

Let your voice be heard by having fun, because remember, we’re committing to never having an end.

Why I Love: Dark Souls

Death and Conflict

For clarity, I played Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition, not the Remaster.

Dark Souls.  What a troubled game.  Remember when I talked about that toxic culture in the article Why I Love: Celeste?  Well, I’m not going to talk about that here.  We get it.  

Dark Souls is an action RPG with paced combat.  The absolutely fantastic artistic direction makes this fantasy game very beautiful and interesting.  It is brutally difficult and challenging.  Wait, did I say brutally difficult?  I meant, it’s brutally different.

I played through so much frustration thinking to myself, “I just need to get good.  I just need to practice.  Everyone says this game is so hard so I just gotta train myself to be more skilled.” 

After a series of frustrating boss fights, I told a friend, who is really into Dark Souls, “This game is just stressful and frustrating.  There is a limit to certain design elements that just make it seem lazy.” 

And he replied by saying, “ No, it’s just eccentric.”

I continued my argument of game design, but I also continued to give his side more thought.  And then after more frustrating failures against the enemies of Dark Souls, it finally dawned on me.  Earlier in the game my friend said that I just wasn’t good enough.  Which was not very nice of him to say, but now he said something different that was the solution to everything.  The game isn’t hard.  It’s just different.

And then everything clicked.  The game isn’t difficult.  It’s just different.  Here I was floundering about for hours without end because all I was trying to do was get better, when in reality I was supposed to just learn how to play differently.  Dark Souls went from “the thing I’m trying to enjoy” to “the thing I am enjoying a lot.”

I think the whole idea of this game being super insanely difficult really dug into my mind and misguided me. Dark Souls is hard, yes, but I think one of the things that could be more important against certain aspects of the game is that sometimes it’s more about how you go about doing things, rather than how good you play.  It’s more about thinking of different ways, than being more skilled.  I rooted out the idea of not being good enough, and replaced it with, when, what, and how should I do anything.  Or…if I should anything at all.  If I should just watch and think.  I think the problem is that I was so used to just getting better and better at doing the main thing in a game, like jumping, aiming and shooting, using combos and elements, or building in better patterns.  So while skill is important in Dark Souls I think there is a process of interpretation that is just as important.  

Dark Souls’ main game mechanic is that when you die you leave behind your souls, which acts as both experience and currency.  If you don’t spend your souls on stat points or items in stores, you are prone to dropping them upon death.  After you respawn, you must go and grab your souls.  However, all the enemies respawn, and should you die again, that old pile of souls despawn to make way for your new corpse’s souls.  

I played through the game with a broken controller, and which button was the broken one?  Ah yes…  the block button.  So I was extremely frustrated playing as a melee character.  The block button only worked some of the time, and “sometimes” is not a good way to go about blocking.

I struggled a lot in the beginning.  I didn’t know my block button was broken yet.  I thought it was me being terrible, but once I realized that I found out how to rely on the times when the button did work.  I did this by holding down the block button when it worked so I don’t have to risk pressing it again only to not raise up my shield.  And if my shield was down, staying out of combat until the time when pressing it did work.  A bit dreadful.

And the second thing is time.  I hate wasting time.  I don’t like sleeping.  I don’t like taking breaks.  And I especially do not like my souls going down the drain after killing a boss.  See, in games like rogue-lites and other RPGs your exp and new unlocks/equipment are always a little step forward after you die.  Even if you die, the time spent is usually accounted for by loot or some exp leftover after an exp loss.  Or maybe you unlocked a new item.  But in Dark Souls…they dump your time into the abyss.  And that makes me really upset. 

Until.  Until I realized that is exactly what Super Mario Bros did to me as a wee child.  Because in old Super Mario Bros and in Dark Souls, sometimes the only thing you have after your death is the skill you gained in playing and nothing else.  Personally, I think this was the biggest thing to overcome for me in my entire playthrough.  It was understanding how to not be frustrated with myself.  This is something that I have trouble with all the time in real life.  If I am not showing progress, I get really upset and sad (or angry).  But Dark Souls is like any other game concerning how it handles your time.  And if you’re not looking at the right way to go about things, whether it’s getting more skilled, being patient with yourself or the game, or learning how to interpret the game, I think it can be pretty frustrating.

Someone else questioned me about why I was trying to play a game that made me so angry in the first half when I was not enjoying it.  And honestly, the thing that kept me going, were the boss designs.  Wow. Most, if not all, of the boss designs are just so good.  From an art standpoint, they’re designed so well.  It gives me goosebumps.  They’re innovative, yet clear.  They’re themed and emotional.  So, that’s what pushed me.  I just really wanted to see these things and fight them.  In the half of the game where I learned to enjoy it, it became a joyful experience to have a new enemy to learn to understand. 

I guess this can feel like an enormously large and vague explanation of why I love Dark Souls, but it all ends well I believe.  I think the whole game is an unconventional way of allowing the player to interpret how to approach enemies without having systemic game design like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Dishonored.  And I honestly really like it.  The semi-open world feel fits well too.  I think it takes the idea of “every enemy is different” from games like The Legend of Zelda series far enough to make you have to work hard for it.  To die for it in many cases.

And so that kind of leads to my last points.  I’d like to make a statement about “souls-likes”.  I hate when people develop a game just for it’s difficulty, because it creates a very toxic environment.  There have been a plethora of souls-like games that try to copy the formula and many of them do not do it well.  I think they put too much focus on the game being hard or having slow and/or paced combat.  I really don’t think those are the things that make a souls-like game.  I think the souls system makes a souls-like.  I don’t think any of the previously mentioned aspects are without purpose in Dark Souls.  The game is difficult, but in a way of design and approach.  The game is slow and paced, but in a way of allowing you to observe, think, and react.  And the souls system backs up the paced combat, forcing you to do those aforementioned things because your experience is on the line.  

And…. maybe that’s just it.  It doesn’t do things “just because.”  It’s different for the sake of game design, and not just for being different.  Dark Souls is so great because it is so deliberate.  And the way it’s designed makes it so we have to be deliberate in everything that we do in the game.  That kind of design is what makes some of the hardest games I’ve played challenging, and not frustrating.  And Dark Souls has managed that in possibly one of the best ways I’ve ever seen.

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition is #82 on the Ultimate Loosely Thought Ranked Analysis, or the ULTRA, which is basically my top games list.  I guess at this point is getting less and less loosely thought.

Thanks for reading, and I hope that Dark Souls doesn’t turn out to be a toxic or super frustrating experience for you if you play it. As much as I am not wont to say it, take breaks if you need to.

Blast that broken block button though.
– Elise

Why I Love: Celeste

Humble Beginnings, Humble Endings

My Introduction to Indie and Thanks to Maddy Thorson

Sorry for the hiatus.  I had an unfortunate episode with something, but now I am back and hopefully that doesn’t happen again.

The origins for me loving Celeste go all the way back to when I was young and indie games were a super niche thing.  My family didn’t have a lot of money, so games were a special occasion.  However, I began to wander the internets for more games that I could get for free and stumbled upon indie games.  The ones that really stuck to me were a group of developers that seemed to be connected.  A lot of them proved to be so in a website that, unfortunately, no longer operates today: the eo community.  Then from there my interest in indie skyrocketed.

One game I obsessed over was released a couple months before I got into all of it: Jumper 2.  I was tired of the glitchy platformers that inhabited many indie websites, but when I found Jumper I was so excited because platformer games were the thing back then.  The graphics were great and the game wasn’t glitchy.  The main character is a failed experiment named Ogmo, who looks like a red block with legs.  Ogmo is adorable and I love him so much. I bet I can find sketches of him in the margins of old school notebooks if I somehow have not thrown them away yet.

And that was it.  I was sucked into the world of indie games.  I made levels in the editor all the time.  I wasn’t super good at platformers, but I think I managed to make it an okay distance through the game while not being pro.  I have followed Maddy Thorson’s career ever since.  I even got my friends to play Jumper: Redux on LAN.   I’ve seen how Thorson grew over time in their designs and it has been an incredible journey.

And then Celeste was released and it took me a long while to play that one.  I was bogged down in everything in life.   Eventually Celeste was being given for free on Epic Games Store.  It brought a renewal of attention, so I decided I would finally play it.  I am immensely grateful for this game.

Why I Love Celeste

Celeste is not an easy game, and it is not a hard game either.  In fact, I don’t know what to say about difficulty in Celeste.  For me, the difficulty curve is the prime example of well done difficulty curves.  And yet, I can say that it was not easy.  

Good video game design usually involves teaching the player without having them read blocks of texts or having them look at a video.  But I would like to propose the idea that Celeste takes good design one step further than pretty much any other game I’ve ever played so far.  The game is humble.  This is not because the game is modest in content or gameplay or anything.  The movement designed in the game is insanely well done.  No, this game is humble because it feels more like a teacher and it feels more like a human, than any game that attempted psychological strategies (or even tricks in the case of some horror games) that I’ve ever played.

Celeste already does the established good designs with good level layouts and quick respawn with little consequence.  Through the game’s story and mood, the game helps you with one more thing that so few games do: it wants you to improve and it makes that clear.  I’ve recently finished Dark Souls 1, and while the game has many good designs in it, the whole attitude and system it has encourages a strong culture of gatekeeping, which is a definite no-no.  There’s always the “You’re Not Good Enough, Scrub” attitude.  I said that it encourages, not creates.  While the culture definitely surrounds it, and I found friends whom I didn’t expect to be enveloped in it too, it does not create it.  Because of the universal struggle in the game, there have been good experiences with other players as well.  But I just can’t say that the culture of the game is good.  It unfortunately, just isn’t.  It wasn’t a good experience, but I’ll talk more about Dark Souls in its own “Why I Love.”  (So at least I still love it.)

Celeste successfully brings difficulty without that kind of attitude.  It shows its tough side with extra objectives and B-Sides to stages for those who want to push themselves to breaking limits, but it does all this with the note saying “You can do it,” or “If you want to.”  I don’t feel like this aspect is “weak” in any way.  In fact, I think it shows that it knows the player, or rather I should say, the person.  

The best professionals and inspirational people in my life are always the humble ones.  The ones that made it through without becoming hardened.  The ones that chose to stay soft so that they can truly uplift.  It is never the easier choice.  These are the kinds of people that when they teach, they teach with heart because they still choose to remember what it was like to struggle not only with the limited skill set of someone just beginning, but also the limited knowledge as well.  

The honor of their prestige is based on being able to share their experiences rather than boast about how others cannot get them.  I think this is what Celeste embodies, in both story and gameplay.  This is why I love Celeste.  The game is no slouch.  It will push you, but in a way that allows oneself to commit to learning and becoming better.  It teaches the player to push themselves more than the game pushes them.  That’s what I’m all about, I’m sure you know.  It is something that I hope that schools one day better integrate into their systems.  It is the optimistic hope that humans can be like that to help each other, because let’s face it, life is not easy alone.  

Celeste is #9 on the ULTRA.  Thanks for reading.  Stay safe out there.  I hope that we all can stay humble, remember to stay soft, and remember that it is not a weakness to help others.


– Elise

Why I Love: Alan Wake

Two Sides

I love Alan Wake, for the same reason a lot of people found it mediocre.  Alan Wake is a third-person action (shooter?) game.  Alan Wake, a writer of a thriller series, goes on vacation to a lake house, only to be haunted by shadowed entities that remind him of his own works.  He can expose and destroy these entities by shining a flashlight at them.  That’s mostly all you need to know about it for what I want to talk about today.  

It is a good game.  It is very crisp, and it feels like playing an episode of The Twilight Zone.  Were it not for good game design it probably wouldn’t be on the ULTRA.  But what I really like about this game is that it is truly a simple game about fighting the darkness, both outside and within.  

I don’t feel like Alan Wake is that psychological, but it’s what defeating darkness within sometimes feels like.  It feels helpless and frustrating (not game design-wise, just for Mr. Wake).  It feels like we’re in an episode of a TV show we can’t get out of.  Ultimately, it’s a fight of light and darkness.  We can also mean that literally because of his flashlight.

I remember when my brother and I were so excited for Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, and we were watching the trailer.  In the trailer Raynor says, “Because the one thing I know; some things are just worth fighting for.”  And I remember my brother saying something about how that is so, so cheesy.  I love cheesy things, and over time I’ve learned why I love cheesy things like that line or the fight between light and darkness.  I love cheesy things because they’re the most real, and Alan Wake emphasizes that in an age where we’re supposed to be so unique in themes.

The struggle against ourselves and knowing what is light in our lives is real.  That’s a real thing.  Knowing what you fight for?  That’s real.  “I’m doing this because I love you”?  I need that.  I wonder if the reason we don’t like cheesy things sometimes is because they remind us of what is real.  This is why I love Alan Wake.  We’re just some random person fighting to find their way out of the darkness. 

Isn’t that what most of us want to do?  We want to be a light to those around us.  We want to truly find light and what is good in all the travails of life and use it to banish the darkness.  When it comes to those that we love, isn’t that what we want to do for them?  It’s cheesy, but it’s true, and Alan Wake embraces it.  That is one of the big reasons why I love the game.

Alan Wake is #116 on the ULTRA.  I hope that we can all endeavor to be a light in the darkness especially during these strange times.  Thanks for reading, I’ll see you next time.
– Elise

Why I Love: Team Fortress 2

Less is More is Less

I said I would talk about some of the design side of video games.  I have been sitting on this idea for almost two weeks, because the more I think about it the more I realize this is such a big chunk of something that I do not believe I have the skill capacity to do so.  I may have bitten off more than I can chew, but even more so, it’s just so much.  

But I said I would.  It’s going to be watered down, but I’m going to do it.

Clarity is something the developers choose on whether or not it is an important factor.  It is not something that is required, but in many cases it is helpful or important to the game.  Fast arcade style FPS games are a good example of good clarity.  You want the brain to be spending as little time as possible understanding what you’re shooting at.  Team Fortress 2 is an excellent example of one of the most common forms of clarity in design, silhouettes.

Team Fortress 2 consists of 9 classes, each with very different functions and important approaches one must consider to remove or run from.  They’re all men, and most of these men are of similar body type.  These characters move through bright terrains and shadowed caverns, which means things like contrast, in color and line, are not always up for consideration.  Let’s take a look at Breath of the Wild.  

Just looking at the trailer, you can see how contrast is used.  Shrines stick out like a sore thumb because of their bright contrast with the desaturated landscape, towers break from the silhouetted forms of the hills, and enemies bring your eyes to them with their many tangenting and crossing forms of line.  The simplicity of other colors, brings your attention through complexity.  Line, value, and color contrast are all done in Breath of the Wild.  But color and value are diminished in an environment that can have the lights be on and off like Team Fortress 2.

And that’s where the strong silhouette design comes into play.  One of the reasons personality is such a strong concept to push for in Team Fortress 2 is because it shows in their demeanor, and that gives a perfect idea/excuse to change silhouettes.  The squat stance of the Scout makes him stand out.  His running animation has his legs swing wildly compared to other characters, which makes him even more obvious.  This is especially important as the Scout will almost always be moving when you see him.  The Medic’s trenchcoat sways in a shape that is not common with other characters.  Small things allow for extra clarity: the Soldier’s poofy clothes, the Pyro’s smooth suit, the mountain that is the Heavy, etc.

It really wouldn’t be so much of a complaint if we saw them all pretty similar.  There are plenty of games where realism is the focus, and clarity may be a matter of combat awareness.  But having the characters just different enough so you can tell from their shape helps in such a hectic environment. 

This is just one of the many things that Team Fortress 2 does so well in visual design that makes it stand out as a class based shooter.  Unfortunately, a lot of this deteriorates when everyone is wearing hats and holding different guns, but in return they (the guns at least) provide a different gameplay variety.

There is more to just these that make Team Fortress 2 a great design though, and there is definitely more that I would encourage you to check out from their developer commentary in game.  I choose Team Fortress 2 as a model multiplayer game, not because other games are bad design, but because Team Fortress 2’s designs are the most clear cut and obvious to a normal player that has no experience in design.  It is sometimes difficult to find out the why behind game designs, but Team Fortress 2 does an amazing job at that.

These kinds of things are also the reasons why “feedback” from players in a competitive environment is oftentimes more dangerous than helpful.  The spectrum of skill that spans the players always looks different when you’re supposedly very skilled, because developers don’t design only for the very skilled, and to encompass all of that without creating two separate games is just terribly inconvenient.  Team Fortress 2 takes in a lot of those variables and makes things like level design, gameplay mechanics, and art design work together as best as possible and makes a fairly balanced game within all of that.  Too many times I read of players who want something changed without considering all sides of the equation, which is to say programming, art, and balance at high levels, low levels, and those in between.  

There are SO many things that Team Fortress 2 does well in art design that involve the other elements, but I love that the silhouettes work so well when all other elements are absent.  So please check out the developer stuff to learn about those other things if you have the time.  The game is free to play and is available on Steam.

Team Fortress 2 is #105 on the ULTRA.  And it’s still a fun game to play now.  I really wish I could speak more in a better descriptive manner, but I’m just a normal person who plays a lot of games.  I just have a desire to talk about games.  I hope I can point you in a direction that helps you appreciate games, as that seems to be the best I can do for now.  Thanks for reading, I’ll see you next time.