The differences between playing a board game and a video game are immense. Video games tend to be about the visceral experience, about the perfect execution of moments by both the developers and the players. We're most excited during a fantastic set piece, or when we just pulled off a feat of dexterity we might have thought impossible.
A board game relies on a different type of engagement. The game itself is basically just a collection of rules, within which the players will make their own experience. Cards and dice are your holy artifacts, as you communally try to channel the spirit of the creator.
This inability to dazzle and the many hindrances to guiding or defining the player's experience, lead board game designers to create games that lend themselves to this kind of interpretation, focusing on tactical and strategic decisions in a way which naturally allows the player to replay the same game several times, getting closer to its core each time he cracks open the box.
Card Hunter is a video game insofar as you'll play it in your browser. It's a board game insofar as how it'll give you a raft of choices to make, and show you, again and again, the results of those choices.
Loot drops are usually a pretty good example of an anti-choice. When a new gun drops in Borderlands, you look at the difference between its stats and the gun you already have, and then pick the one that is clearly better. Card Hunter flips this on its head, and makes your choice of equipment the defining strategic decision of the game. It is equipment that will determine the abilities, manifested in card form, that you'll be able to bring to bear against your enemies.
Cards are the defining element of Card Hunter; they are your only way to block, heal, attack or even move. Aside from your character's health, there are no statistics to offer an escape from the game's focus on the digital determinants of your fate. Your only certainty is that you'll draw a single movement card, quality dependent on your choice of race, every turn.
So, in picking your weapons, your armor, your boots, you're making decisions about whether your Priest will heal or buff, how your Warrior will deal with armor, what kind of elements your Wizard will fling at the targets of his arcane rage. However, there are also more subtle elements than that. You're picking the ratios of your deck, determining just how many movement cards there will be to how many attacks, considering how many defensive or utility cards you can add in before you've blunted the deck. Each slot has its focus, and whilst I haven't yet found a pair of boots that offers straight damage, I have found one that offers mobile attack cards versus one that offers straight movement.
Then there's the choice between high deviation items and ones with a little more consistency. Each item doesn't just determine one card; they determine a swath of them, with the type determining the number, from 3 to 6. So which is better, the club that offers 6 decent attacks, or the mace that offers one fantastic one, two great ones, and three fairly trashy ones?
In the guts of actual combat, you'll swap turns between yourself and your opponent every time you play a card. Each character you control has their own hand, but that and their hit points are the only ways they are individuals as opposed to members of your team. You'll have to weather the fortune of the draw to be able to defeat your opponents, remembering a glut of attacks now means a drought later, carefully choosing the two cards you hold at end of turn to make sure that the next round isn't a write-off.
That is, essentially, the strategic and tactical meat of Card Hunter. You'll have to adapt to the situations you come across; enemies have their set game plans and they can often destroy an unprepared player, so you'll need to work out one of your own that will use their utterly inflexible AI nature as a sledgehammer with which to crush them. The differing focuses of the classes mean there are multiple moving parts you'll need to solve to create that perfect counter plan.
In the heat of battle, your job will be to anticipate the future and deftly manage your actions so that you might be able to carry out the strategy you crafted when you equipped your character for this fight.
The game itself is an intuitive and accessible take on some very strategically complex mechanics that reek of classic board gaming. The art style of the game perfectly compliments its fundamentals, with the overall experience presented as teenagers playing what seems to be a mash-up of Dungeons & Dragons and Magic: the Gathering. Characters and monsters are represented by cardboard miniatures in an incredibly endearing quirk, with quests essentially being modules your GM has bought and is now running you through. The plot and atmosphere of the work taps into the fantasy of the perfect tabletop experience, with good friends, a gloriously geeky traditional sword and sorcery theme and thoroughly enjoyable gameplay.
Card Hunter is a free-to-play browser-based game, which may turn some people off. In my experience, the model is quite reasonable with regards to single-player; there's a steady drip of loot and experience in the free experience, to the point where you'll never need to play anything but fresh content. However, the paid experience runs the gamut from the benign element of alternative character skins to a "subscription" where you'll get increased loot drops for a set number of days, as well as purchasable quests offering exclusive epic loot. There is a great free experience here, but if you're turned off by the idea that paying players are having a more highly powered [and probably objectively better] experience, you may want to look elsewhere.
Whilst I haven't played much of it so far, there's a multiplayer aspect to Card Hunter that can provide a way to get some additional loot or an opportunity to hone your skills. How balanced it is, both with regards to specific items and between paying and non-paying players, I cannot say. I certainly won't begrudge the developers the inclusion of it, though.
If you're interested in Card Hunter, then direct the noble steed that is your browser to cardhunter.com, and godspeed.
"Remember the good old days, great games, 60 dollars, no fuss, we paid and then just played? Now they drown good games in their endless greed, if they haven't CoDified anything interesting out of existence before then."
"Remember the good old days, great games, 60 dollars, no fuss, they paid and we could just let them play? Now, if they're not stealing our games, they're giving all their money to a middleman for a 5 dollar discount."
We live in a particularly charged era of gaming enthusiasm. We've cast away the rattle and dummy with revolutionary fervour, preparing to take up arms to defend our rights as customers. No more shall we live in a state of contentment with the mediocre, with the overpriced, no longer shall our news websites be little more than paid advertisements for a corporate machine. In comment threads, we invoke EA much as we once invoked the Devil, the Hun; the blackest fiend our psyche can conjure up, a face to the worst excesses of what we fear. EA crucified Bullfrog, EA opened Pandora's Box, the demons microtransactions, DLC, redundancies and lack of innovation bursting from the seal and hanging heavy in the air evermore.
It should not be necessary for me to state that I doubt this style of characterization, this communal propaganda, these endless efforts in masturbatory demonization are very worthwhile.
That they give some great pleasure is obvious. That attacking something that seeming symbolizes in every way how something once considered "ours" can be blanched, processed, and commodified beyond all recognition gives some a sensation of great purpose is an essential theme of human society. That ultimately this leads to anything constructive is where I flippantly consider whether fulfilling the psychological desire of human beings to "other" their fellows can be considered constructive.
If you think that EA is cackling at every incremental effort to extract money from you, gleefully programming digital winged monkeys to assail the oh-so-noble kingdom of your wallet, you are dreadfully mistaken. Similarly I would be utterly foolish to pretend that they in any way are somehow martyrs in what has increasingly become the miserable divorce of two once-loving partners. I believe, and I fully qualify the following as almost entirely the speculative efforts of one overly imaginative young man [some dream of dragons and beautiful young harlots, I ponder of the psychology of suited businessmen and fellow neckbeards], that EA is as much participating in the vilification of the consumers it is increasingly sees as a necessary evil as most gamers are in demonizing them. I believe this attitude would be as common amongst publishers as it is amongst the hallowed virtual halls of the gaming community. It is a fundamentally human trope, an epic tragedy insofar in how it rusts the most fundamental wheels of society and a great personal irritation insofar in how it is so banal and common.
Where you may see the great evil of the past month or so of gaming as the disappointment of Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game that seems increasingly to have never been designed with the intent of being pleasurable, Gearbox may well see it as their flagellation following their savaging in the gaming press for releasing a game that never needed to be good in the first place. Gearbox may well have believed that the release of A:CM would be pleasing to gamers in and of itself, as it may have seemed the release of Duke Nukem: Forever would be good in and of itself. Not hard to buy an IP that would otherwise forever stay in cold storage to shunt a cookie-cutter game out the door; near DN:F's release date, it seemed that gamers regarded the thing as an artifact in and of itself. A piece of gaming history for 60 dollars; a bargain, no?
Where EA sees the greatest economic injustice of the modern industry as the predominance of preowned game sales, you may see it as the increasing prevalence of microtransactions.
In the days of yore, the days of ours, our literal and not eternal psychological childhoods, it was all so simple, was it not? We had such a simple contract with our good friend Shigeru, with Nintendo's dream factory, a pledge with Sony, a pact with Sega.
We gave them our hard-earned cash and they gave us a great game.
Who broke this contract? Obviously we can point to games that came out during that era, even that were created by the most lauded of developers, even those that were part of franchises iconic both in gaming culture and in the purity and perfection of their design, that failed to truly achieve the latter half of this contract. Yet now these are often regarded as failed experiments, noble in aim if not in accomplishment.
Developers and publishers could argue that it has increasingly become a part of gaming culture to not only implicitly endorse but lionize those who refuse to pay for the experiences they give. The mere name "pirate" comes with connotations of outlaws, brigands, a devil-may-care bravado, charm and individualism; all this without even considering the fact that many gamers believe publishers should just "accept" piracy, or that piracy is not even immoral. But should gamers be tarred for the actions of a few, even if they implicitly support them?
At some point, the relationship broke down, and we ended up in the current quagmire. The environment lately feels reminiscent of Vietnam, of the collapse of a marriage full of bitter misery and frustrated hope, of the life of a starving artist who has not even talent to show for his suffering.
Increasingly we bray and bleat, furiously moralizing against publishers and developers, leaving no rhetorical device unsaid to express our violent hatred of those who have worked to bring us so much joy. Increasingly we have chosen to gorge ourself on the hand, loudly pronouncing the food inedible. The tone of this conversation, above all else, causes nothing within me but despondency. We wax lyrical about our precious 60 dollars, ignoring everything that developers do to bring us their games. Dishonored was a true vision last year, original, engrossing, perfectly designed; whipped and forced naked through the street for the crime of lacking "value for money". Increasingly I hear that developers have corrupted games by making them all about money; I wonder that this corruption does not indeed lie also within our heads.
There is, however, a truth to say that publishers have failed to adapt to the current needs of the market place. It is, sadly, an eternal and recursive truth; the very nature of the publishers prevents their innovation, their evolution. Those who win market share tend to be very capable at developing a business model perfect to exploiting the technique that brought them their initial bounty. Subsequently, they consolidate; they grow horizontally, hiring new employees in duplicate positions, aiming to produce more products similar to those that have already brought them success. Whether as a result of this increase in human density or due to the increase in financial risk, corporations democratize, in a way. They become more bureaucratic, they add a superfluity of checks and balances. They avoid with all costs new methods of earning capital because of the potential risk to the old; a misstep could cost much more than the initial outlay. Torpidity sets in and employees and management learn to innovate via iteration. They take their one theme and tease it out, much like peeling apart a scarf until it is one immensely long strand. And eventually, this lack of innovation causes them to take that strand and hang themselves with it.
Often it seems that gamers think there are people ultimately responsible for the decisions corporations make; this is foolish. The corporation does not know individuality; in fact, it fears and loathes it. Where it can bottle it to produce the initial flame it is glad to, but henceforth it stifles it by carefully interweaving its own structure so no one member can ever truly make any decision. Employees negate decisions made by their compatriots to avoid being considered responsible for a failure. The CEO and Board are responsible to shareholders, who know nothing but the bottom line. The shareholders themselves have no power to affect any real change at all; they can only direct the top to change the structure of the middle and the bottom. It is a model that serves its time well, but it rots quickly.
The question, however, is: Are corporations reliant on the current model rotting? A question for minds more informed to the current economics of the industry than mine, but I honestly doubt it. In fact, I feel that corporations are, in their process of iterative innovation, creating a business model that sees hardcore gamers as completely unnecessary. Though we may have purchasing power, it is comparatively insignificant to that a broader market can marshal. This is not to say that they do not WANT our business; rather, they have become utterly unwilling to expend anything in their efforts to gain it. Those they lose through embedding microtransactions, those they shed with online passes, those who throw up their hands in disgust at homogenization; they pale to the money they gain from new consumers increasingly willing to make new forms of outlay.
Narrative tends to have a fundamental structure, that of the Hero's Journey. A Call to Action. A Challenge. A Clash With the Villain [or some other avatar of conflict, be it internal or environmental]. Yet the film industry has layered on its own elements; comic sidekicks, a love interest, et cetera, ad nauseam, all wrapped up in a generic coating of the fantasy du jour, be it superheroes, adventure, sci-fi. Gaming has its own fundamental structure; development, movement towards a goal, increasing layers of complexity onto a single task. But increasingly, the industry has created a Frankenstein's Monster of a template to which all games conform; a mixture of shooter, RPG, and non-linear elements are all stitched on, then the necessary skin stretched over the skeleton of the thing.
Can we change this? If this comes to pass, will gaming still be worth it? To the first, I say no. AAA gaming by its nature now rejects the principles of auteur game development that many of us profess to desire; unique, pure creative works, untainted by considerations of the market. These experiments not only fail to maximise profit, but do not generate it on a substantial scale in the first place. But this is not the same as saying that auteur game development will disappear all together, but rather that it will, as indeed it already has, move to the PC, where the barrier to content production is significantly lower and both the audience and market more receptive.
To move temporarily to the personal, increasingly I have been frustrated with the direction of AAA gaming. Once I would have appreciated the sprawling nature of open-world adventure games like Far Cry 3 or Skyrim that have come to overwhelm the market, but now they tire and alienate me. Playing them feels like drowning my mind in a puddle. I look increasingly towards calculated and crafted experiences, not those that have been stitched and woven together from hundreds of minds.
As such, indie gaming is to me a godsend. Whilst there are still myriad worthwhile AAA gaming experiences, these will always exist as outliers. Even the most creatively sterile sectors produce something of worth on occasion, if they are broad enough. The industry increasingly will see hardcore gamers as subsidiary consumers, if they do not do so already. We require massive investments to please, from preview structures to specific types of game design to avoiding business practices either financially profitable or psychologically necessary, and to them we seem to have repaid them through causing economic failure, stealing from them and demonizing them.
The past generations may well have been a golden age for the amount of money invested in making the types of games believed to appeal to gamers. They have not, however, been a golden age for creativity, or a golden age for quality. These may well be yet to come. Many people seem to begrudge the publishers and developers, as they may well begrudge us; I do not. They have provided us with a service which unites us all with great passion. It is how that passion has come to be expressed that has come to be the depressingly obvious irony.
A couple of months back, the furore du jour was over comments made by John Hemingway, the lead designer of Borderlands 2, whilst describing the "Best Friends Forever" skill tree of the Mechromancer to eurogamer.net. In the interest of objectivity, I'll repeat the central comment of Hemingway's here verbatim:
"The design team was looking at the concept art and thought, you know what, this is actually the cutest character we've ever had. I want to make, for the lack of a better term, the girlfriend skill tree. This is, I love Borderlands and I want to share it with someone, but they suck at first-person shooters. Can we make a skill tree that actually allows them to understand the game and to play the game? That's what our attempt with the Best Friends Forever skill tree is."
The skill tree in question, in all its controversial and antagonistic glory.
What a delight this must have been for the specialist game press in general, with what was once a Eurogamer exclusive easily feeding a day's worth of opinion articles and instantly igniting cataclysmic comment section wars between those who would call themselves feminists and those who would label them feminazis.
"WHY DON'T YOU GET A NOOSE OF YOUR OWN, YOU FEMINAZI BITCH?"
Whilst there's almost a superfluity of implicit sexism in Hemingway's statement, particularly in the assumption that women are automatically drawn towards the "cutest" option available, I believe there are actually two problems with what Hemingway is saying. There's the surface problem; that a fairly prominent figure in an up-and-coming development studio is treating more than half the world's population with outright, if perhaps subconscious, condescension. But there's another problem here, and it's that a fairly prominent figure in an up-and-coming development studio apparently doesn't understand how to design your game to be accessible to new players.
I feel obligated here to state that, in general, I believe that the design of Borderlands 2 was excellent, especially the design of the skill trees. In fact, I find the design of the Best Friends Forever quite pleasing, in an aesthetic sense. Primarily focused on giving the player more capacity to take damage, you essentially subcontract your DPS out to Deathtrap. It's a well-rounded, easily comprehensible tree, and yet skills like "Sharing is Caring", which gives your robotic minion Deathtrap a copy of your shield, pushes you towards a simplified form of the experimentation that other skill trees will really make you work to optimize. My following points will not be to argue that the Best Friends Forever skill tree is a poor design, but rather that it will not be the warm introduction to hardcore gaming that Hemingway advertised it as being.
First off, I'll make the most obvious point about any skill tree designed to make Borderlands 2 more accessible: you can't put points into skills until level 6. Assuming that this person "suck[s] at first-person shooters", but is being introduced to Borderlands 2 by someone at least fluent in how the game works, that would probably take roughly an hour, give or take 10 or 20 minutes. This might not seem like much time, but for a player who "can't aim", that's an hour where they are doing literally nothing but being led through a colourful funhouse ride that, by the way, is also trying to kill them.
Assuming that this person was asked by their partner to play Borderlands 2 and told by said partner that there was a mode to make the game easier for them, they would probably be feeling a lot of things at this point. Irritation. Annoyance. Utter confusion. Anger. Exhaustion.
And possibly a desire to never again play a game more complicated than Farmville.
How I wish you could grow satisfying experience plants.
There are 4 levels in Borderlands 2 where you can do nothing but shoot and move, and if the archetypical "girlfriend mode" girlfriend can't shoot, then during that period, they are effectively playing the AI in an escort mission. That's not a particularly happy, healthy or ideal relationship dynamic.
Secondly, very few Borderlands 2 skill trees really get off the ground until level 16 or so, when either the first one-point wonder binds everything together or the number of skill points reaches critical mass. Even if you're assuming Close Enough, which is the widely advertised skill that means missed bullets occasionally bounce into enemies, you still need to get to level 10 for half of your missed bullets to bounce. That's maybe 3 or 4 hours of play, which, for most people, would probably be an entire evening of play at least. If you can get someone to slog through this for you, then you have the most devoted and/or understanding partner in the world, so good job, I guess.
Except not, because you're subjugating their feelings to your own fantasies and desires BUT I'M GETTING AHEAD OF MYSELF
Finally, and I'll make this a more general point about crafting a more accessible experience for new players, rather than one focused on the whole "girlfriend mode" thing, the psychology of the Best Friends Forever is entirely wrong. The BFF tree, if viewed through the lens of being a tool to assist and introduce new players, is a decidedly archaic design. It is designed as a hardcore gamer would design a character for a player they believe to be unskilled, designed to mitigate their ability to fail rather than empowering them during their perhaps infrequent successes. It is designed, when viewed in this fashion, with a sort of veiled contempt, designed to make sure a player's decisions are less impactful, designed to make sure their failures can be arbitrarily mitigated, designed to make Deathtrap the real character rather than the human player in question.
This is an acute visual representation of what I'm talking about, with Deathtrap literally carrying Gaige. Clearly this is an intentional layer of meaning on Gearbox's part and not an entirely random coincidence. To provide a counter-example, I offer Annie, a release character in League of Legends. League of Legends is, due to the fact that it clings to as many elements of its DotA heritage as it excises, a fairly unintuitive game. Behaviours many new players naturally feel drawn to, such as auto-attacking every minion [whereas the optimal move is generally to only hit minions when they are about to die] and pushing to the tower [which opens you up to ambushes] can often result in disaster. However, Annie works quite well as a skillgate character, designed to teach players certain fundamentals of the game.
The fact that she's a little girl does somewhat mitigate my empowerment point.
The major element here is Annie's skill Disintegrate. This allows her to deal a substantial amount of magic damage, and is on a fairly short cooldown of around 4 seconds. However, if you kill an enemy minion or champion with Incinerate, you are refunded its mana cost. Thus, Incinerate pushes you to use itself regularly, but only every 4 seconds, and only when you are assured that casting the spell will grant you a minion kill. As such, it naturally works to guide the player away from both pushing excessively and from autoattacking minions, providing a regular execute move that replaces excessive autoattacking.
A subsidiary element is her passive, Pyromania. When you cast a spell, you receive a Pyromania charge, and at 5 charges, your next spell will stun all enemies it hits. This provides a tangible reason for players to actively monitor their spell usage, and to plan ahead, which is perhaps the most important general strategy in League of Legends. By pushing the new player to consider whether they should actively try and charge up Pyromania for a future engagement, Riot's design of this champion provides an incentive for consistent thought and consideration of future elements of the game.
Finally, Annie is what is known as a burst mage: that is, her function is to unload her arsenal of spells on a target as quickly as possible to deal them massive damage. This very visceral and easily comprehensible playstyle is both attractive and within the capabilities of the new League of Legends player. Though I rarely see Annie any more in the games I watch my friends play, her design was an admirable effort by Riot to make their game more accessible to newer players in a way that actually made the new player feel good.
Annie also has a pet whose threatening physicality acts to create a neat visual juxtaposition and is a fairly young woman with a quirky outfit. She's very different to Gaige.
Gearbox seems to have completely ignored that. One of the reasons I believe that the "girlfriend mode" was, in fact, common internal rhetoric rather than the idiosyncratic phrasing of a single individual is that the skill tree itself has been designed and in fact packaged in a fashion that proclaims very loudly that its exclusive function is to be a tool for experienced players to introduce non-gaming friends to the game. There are many ways Gearbox could have done what Riot did, either by promoting good play or by maximising the successes of the new player. They could have created a skill that increased the size of the projectiles that Gaige fires, thus making it easier for her to hit her targets. They could have created a skill that increases damage with every shot you miss, thus offering some compensation for the missed DPS of a newer, less technically skilled player.
Prepare yourselves for a highly legitimate theory, dear reader.
Instead they created and actively promoted a skill with a name as outrageously condescending as "Close Enough", that removes the human player from the game and instead uses a random number generator to artificially grant them occasional success.
It is my belief that the Best Friends Forever skill tree was designed from the very beginning to be packaged and sold as "girlfriend mode". For why would Gearbox, if they truly wished to create a skill tree designed to introduce all new players to a game, exclusively sell this skill tree as part of a character that must either be actively purchased or was received as a reward for a preorder? Neither of those are likely behaviours for a player who can't even aim in an FPS game, one of the most intuitive, visceral and popular genres on the market. Why is so much real estate on the skill tree devoted to minimizing the player's capacity to die? Why does the skill tree have the sneaky allusion to the controversy that I have no doubt played a substantial role in the decision of a fair proportion of gamers to purchase Borderlands 2, in the form of a skill entitled "The Better Half"?
Roughly as subtle.
The gaming community has an unfortunate obsession with others sharing their obsession with their hobby, which leads to the sort of aggressive and insecure proselytizing that inevitably begins any time a mainstream outlet criticises us. It has led to the fetishization of "girl gamers", which is where "girlfriend mode" comes in.
Hemingway's language speaks of a Frankenstein's monster of the archetypical girl next door and the gamer. A woman, concerned primarily with what is "cute", is led by her male partner into the world of Borderlands and general hardcore gaming, and has it easily explained to her. It speaks to the desire of male gamers to have a girlfriend that plays games, a desire that goes beyond merely desiring a partner who shares one's interests and into the bizarrely sexual. And if one cannot organically find such a person, well then, why not make one?
It saddens me to think that a group of people so superficially modern would subscribe to an ideology that could barely have been considered contemporary in the 1950s. But I certainly believe that segments of the gaming community has a twofold problem with women, aiming to convert them to sex objects and then relentlessly attacking those who criticize them for it, and I have little difficulty in believing that companies might market elements of their game to more subdued and subtle forms of that prejudice.
If you have and care about a partner, you shouldn't be determined to convert them to your way of life. It's the same sort of psychological thuggery that many of us experienced as children, and that ultimately made many of us want partners that share to the last detail our interests. By all means look for a female gamer as a partner, but don't attempt to make someone else into one. It's uncivilized to attempt to craft another human being according to your own whims and desires.
This particular blog rather galloped away from me, I'm afraid. I initially planned to merely discuss what I believed to be the inherent contradictions in design philosophy and execution and instead grew to exposit what I believe to be the fundamental reasons behind why the design was arrived at in the first place. I certainly feel obligated to partake in what will, in all likelihood, be a very robust discussion in the comments. I do, however, wish to pre-emptively state that I don't believe John Hemingway or Gearbox Software to be actively misogynist. I believe the language and intent contains elements of misogyny, but they are of a particularly subdued and insidious permutation. They may well be entirely subconscious, and affect the behaviour of the individuals in question very little. I certainly hope that they do.
The art of the prologue is sorely neglected in the broader video game industry.
Perhaps the very purpose of a prologue works against its utilization in modern interactive storytelling. A prologue works primarily to establish themes and the tone of the work, and in an industry where the talents of writers seem to be measured by how best they can emulate Spielberg, Lucas or Roddenberry.
Corporate shills. I hate these guys.
The opening to Bioshock is an incredible experience, a microcosm of everything the game wishes its player to consider. The subversion of seeming choice, as Jack is pushed towards the lighthouse in order to survive. The irony in the contrast between Andrew Ryan's libertarian rhetoric and the player's helplessness in the bathysphere, devoid of anything resembling Ryan's beloved self-determination as they are drawn into his warped, distorted utopia.
Did you know: There's evidence that suggests that Ayn Rand herself wanted to establish an underwater utopia. Well, she once said "Meet you in Atlantis" or something. Go post that on Reddit. Stop complaining about your new fact.
It's the perfect set-up to the game's denoument, Ryan's "Would You Kindly" speech. The overt message of empowerment is subtly subverted by the ironies of the situation, creating Bioshock's incredibly unique atmosphere. Bioshock holds a mirror up to the simulated nature of the interactive world, exploring what it really is to make a choice in a video game. In seeming contrast to every other mainstream title, Bioshock's main characters are not playable, and they are vastly more powerful and active than the player. Yet Bioshock pulls back the curtain on more than itself, showing "choice" for the Molyneuxian illusion it almost always is. As long as game development remains limited by the finite capacity of human beings to program in the results of certain decisions, "choice" as Mass Effect and Fable sell it cannot exist. It remains the domain of tabletop style RPGs alone, an arena where the human imagination trumps the rules.
The original overly convoluted "Choose Your Own Adventure" book.
In many ways, Dishonored is a spiritual successor to Bioshock the same way Bioshock was a spiritual successor to System Shock 2. Dishonored takes many broad elements of the design of Bioshock, whilst creating its own tone, gameplay style, and narrative, much as Bioshock generally excised much of the survival horror from its predecessor. Dishonored does not ask one to consider the nature of the video game; in fact, it doesn't overtly thematically explore much in the sense that a book or a film would, using symbolism, events or characters to represent certain ideas and the contrast between them. Instead, Dishonored gives the player a living, sprawling world to explore, and gives them only one choice to make: what form will my revenge take?
Internet, all I wanted was an easily uncovered image of Corvo holding his mask ala Hamlet with Yorick's skull. COULD YOU REALLY HAVE NOT DRAWN ONE LESS PICTURE OF PONIES HAVING INTERCOURSE TO FULFILL MY SELFISH WHIMS INSTEAD OF YOUR OWN YOU UTTER BASTARDS
This question is shockingly powerful. Bioware games give players a superfluity of choices, none of which are genuinely impactful in any sense, because they aren't truly organic player choices. You cannot reduce human interaction to a series of options in a tree and then have the theme of your game be choice, because it makes absolutely no sense. Having a chat with a friend cannot be ruled by the same system that dictates how you interact with a moral dilemma, because of the vast disparity in potential outcomes.
By contrast, Dishonored has learnt a lesson from Bioshock, and its protagonist is merely a pawn in a much wider conflict. He is a weapon of the Loyalist Conspiracy, and nothing more. His choices are limited to how he wishes to remove each obstacle to the ambitions of his superiors. Yet Corvo's choices have high emotional currency attached to them. The foul creatures Dishonored places before its players almost universally deserve death, yet it is arguable few of them deserve the terribly ironic nonlethal punishments that can be visited upon them. It's a surprisingly reversal of Western notions of crime and punishment, those of the barbarity of extralegal execution and the poignancy and necessity of punishment befitting the crime. Savage to slay a woman to weaken the economic position of a foe, but there is a monstrous calculated malevolence in subverting her attempts to improve her positions by her efforts in bed through drugging her and giving her to an obsessed admirer, perhaps to fulfil his depraved desires.
There's a disturbing intimacy to the Boyle kill. You read the letters of the target and her sisters, you play a childish little game, maybe you flirt with her a little, and in the dark of her room, you impale her with a dagger. WAIT A MINUTE
And yet Dishonored fails to truly explore Corvo's most defining moment, the point at which he realises he will be blamed for the death of his dearest friend, his beloved ruler, and, in all likelihood, his romantic partner and the mother of his child.
Dishonored's prologue, painted in broad strokes, evokes the spectacle and expands upon the exposition elements of Bioshock's. Yet, apart from the contrast it will later provide to the bleak nature of Corvo's life and to the cruel, rarefied leadership of Dunwall, it fails to establish the theme and tone of the game. And after considering the opening, I find myself wondering:
Why didn't Arkane allow us to play out Corvo's response to the death of the Empress?
By all means, Corvo should be paralyzed whilst the Empress is murdered. This event is the driving force of the plot, and the player's helplessness in the face of the Outsider's gifts works well in demonstrating the immensity of his power. But to unceremoniously have Corvo bludgeoned into unconsciousness by a guard and bundled off to prison frivolously wastes a crucial storytelling element.
"Jessie, that Lord Regent guy is hilarious! "Kill the poor" and all that, perfect deadpan. Some Jonathan Swift shit right there. Get him to do the Imperial Revue later this year, it'll be great!"
A player might choose to futilely chase after those who have absconded with Lady Emily, making Corvo's tale one of dysfunctional fatherhood and loyalty to a dead love.
Perhaps they simply choose to run, truly making Corvo into a pawn, affected and controlled by forces far beyond his control.
Or maybe they choose to slaughter their way through deceived guards, an undiscriminating cyclone of vengeance, determined to murder the conspirators for what they've done. Thus Dishonored would truly become a tale of revenge at all costs, with Corvo choosing, from the very beginning of the narrative, to put all else aside to vanquish those who have wronged him.
With these elements, I doubt there would really be any need for a massive overhaul of the game's atmosphere or environment. A few pieces of dialogue about Corvo's cowardice once his regicide was discovered or a fearful discussion between guards about the transcendent bloodlust of the man they are to protect the regime from would have helped, but ultimately an opening goes a long damn way. A person forced to act immediately, denied a period of reflection and consideration, is widely believed to be one forced to reveal their true self. Perhaps Dishonored becomes a tale of trying to overcome the true stain on Corvo's character, the one he imprints himself through his reaction to the most trying of circumstances. Perhaps it becomes a tale of the psychological and moral collapse of a once noble character, drunk on eldritch power that yet cannot satisfy his infinite thirst for what his warped mind sees as righteous bloodshed.
Video games are art, Roger Ebert, I swear! Please call me man, we can watch Wreck-It Ralph together! You like animation, right, buddy?
As of now, Dishonored is easily my AAA title of the year, for whatever amount of absolutely jack-shit nothing that is worth. It utilizes real choice and a silent protagonist to truly immerse a player in its world. But video games are an evolving medium, and I can't but feel that Arkane missed the boat here.
Nothing can prove to me more the power of the iterative sequel than Borderlands 2 has.
The original Borderlands was an awkward, grindy, oftentimes mundane experience out of the box. The atmosphere overwhelmingly reminded me of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, a bizarre mix between the stodgily serious and the exasperatingly zany. The gameplay itself was an interesting fusion of first-person shooter elements with concepts traditionally reserved for fantasy role-playing games, but in deviating from the traditional shooter formula of an 8-hour campaign, it lost part of that genre's draw, that of epic set pieces heightened by the blurring of the lines between player, character, and camera. Instead there were skags, skags as far as the eye could see.
For such a crucial character, the Skag did not exactly have stellar voice acting.
But I played a fair damn bit of Borderlands. I was in late high school, with time to burn and responsibilities to forget. My brother and I would have started the game at least 4 or 5 times together, and another 3 separately each. I can remember my tanking Brick, my right shoulder bumper Mordecai, a Lilith I used for my initial disappointing playthrough. I remember being inordinately delighted at achieving my first rank in Master Blaster, for an explosives-based Brick I nurtured in a solo playthrough.
I might have seen that container of tentacles and disappointment once. I never went through the game's Playthrough 2 mode. But Borderlands kept drawing me back in. Every lazy holiday, every dull weekend, and a fair few afternoons after a shitty day at school ended up with me listening to my iPod whilst jumping endlessly on Claptrap's head, waiting for the opening sequence to finish.
So what exactly was Claptrap built for? A portable talking stepladder? A wingman for midgets?
So I was excited to see a sequel take shape. It promised stranger creatures to kill, quirkier characters to play, more dynamic and intriguing loot, locales both lush and barren to truly take advantage of that unique aesthetic, and dialogue worth one hearing instead of none. I'm now in True Vault Hunter mode with my Ordered Chaos Mechromancer, and I can say with certainly that Gearbox delivered on every single one of the above.
But when you dissect Borderlands 2, is it a well-designed game?
Entering Dryanalysisville, Population: One boring asshole
Video games are obviously designed to actively engage a player, but the ways they go about this are obviously different.
Perfect harmony of idea and form. The opening to Bioshock is one of my favourite game experiences, so you'll all be seeing this picture again.
There are games like Bioshock, Journey, Uncharted, or Monkey Island: games about the journey, about the spectacle, the story, the world. Old media made interactive. The fantasy lands we imagined as kids realized, the novels we wish we could escape into with the doors thrown wide open.
Just looking at levels like this pushes me to come up with ways to defeat them.
There are games like Super Meat Boy, League of Legends, Starcraft 2 or Tetris: games about the tools we're given, and the ways we leverage them. They're puzzle boxes, or sports, and they represent what we can do with traditional game design principles when we have incredibly complex tools that allow us to make games with far more complex elements than anything that could have been done with mere human brain space. Now all that capacity is freed from having to understand specific rules, and the full force of the mind can be focused on strategy, on tactics, on ideas, on the game itself.
And then there are games like Borderlands, Diablo, or Farmville.
Gotta farm up to that Level 50 food pellet.
The primary goal in a game like Borderlands is a goal that is as widely maligned as it is popular; namely, the driving force of the game is to make your character more powerful essentially as an end in itself. Most people will have come across this philosophy through MMORPGs or ARPGs like WoW or Diablo, where the fundamental process is:
Defeat enemies via clicking or hotkeys > Get loot and/or XP > Defeat stronger enemies > Get better loot and/or more XP
Rinse, repeat, ad nauseam.
It relies entirely on human psychology, the need to improve one's situation, the need for accomplishment, the need for shiny. The game becomes less something to explore or something to solve, but an easy way of pushing that neural button.
I do a great Nixon too, guys. Topical political humour is my speciality.
OK, I'm done. Borderlands 2 is poorly designed. Please leave feedback on how I can improve my blogs, or subscribe to this for more articles by me!
But that's too simplistic a conclusion. That does a disservice to my ego as a writer and it does a disservice to Gearbox to say that Borderlands 2 is poorly designed because of the player development mechanic, because it ignores all the various elements Gearbox took from other schools of design to make Borderlands 2 the game it is.
The opening cinematic of Borderlands 2 is a damn spectacle, and it certainly sets the tone for the piece ahead. A melange of action, humour and some surprisingly dark and emotional moments comprises Borderlands 2's story. Handsome Jack's development from simply a murderous goof to a deceptive mastermind to the revelation of the full scope of atrocities he's inflicted upon the people of Pandora [and several outside of it] was a brilliant way to guide players normally turned off by the drip-feed of rewards all the way to the final conflict with The Warrior.
Anthony Burch may not have told the most original story with Borderlands: it's essentially the typical three-act journey story, with the Hero being told of their destiny, the Villain spurring them to action with some despicable act, and the ultimate triumph of the protagonist. But it's a very well-told story. It's the exact story a game like Borderlands 2 needs to keep you invested. Mad props to Gearbox for taking a risk by hiring an internet pundit/comedian to write for them. And the most shit-flingingly insane of props to Anthony Burch himself, for putting his money where his mouth is. Burch proved with Borderlands 2 that you absolutely can tell a very conventional story in the most unconventional of forms. And several missions play on Burch's ideas about how interactivity can be used to provoke genuine responses in players.
Borderlands 2 also is a massive leap from the previous game in how it deals with skill trees and enemies. In the first game, enemies were almost binary in how they differed from one another:
> Shoot in weak spot: head or tail
> Weak to element: fire, shock, corrosion
> Melee or ranged
Even the Thresher looks disappointed with those guns. In Borderlands 2, we have the Varkids, which evolve mid-combat, Loaders, robots that can be dismembered, Goliaths, hulking slabs of human meat that, if a stray crit removes their helmet, cease to discriminate between friend and foe, stealthy Stalkers, who can turn invisible if the player should fail to break their shields, and many variants on the human and animal model of the original.
Then there are the skill trees. In the original, skill trees were fairly conservative, representing staid increases to your base stats. They didn't define your playthrough any more than a personal decision to use a specific weapon would, really, mostly adding value to actions you were already taking.
With Borderlands 2, however, Gearbox has shown a genuine understanding of how you can lead the player to water and convince them they wanted a drink all along. Lilith's Sweet Release skill, granting health to all players when a Phaselocked enemy is shot, encourages teamwork, pushing players to focus the target Lilith has singled out for a Phaselock. Axton's Gunpowder skill tree is clearly designed to appeal to mainstream FPS players, offering both stat increases to CoDify the game as well as a focus on the typical alternative weapon of those shooters, the grenade. Best of all are the skills that add new dimensions to the game, such as Salvador's Auto-Load. Every kill reloads all guns Salvador isn't currently wielding, pushing the player to constantly swap weapons back and forth, as this becomes more efficient than actually reloading. Chaining swaps at the right time can thus mean that you can output substantially more damage than you would if breaking for reloads, but it forces different strategic decisions on a player. It's the sort of game design you want to hang in a museum.
Neither the ARPG genre or the shooter genre tend to inspire much awe in me, but Gearbox's fusion of design elements from them both is something artisanal. Bland shooter combat is spiced up with a variety of combat options woven cleverly into the game. In order to efficiently vanquish your enemies, you need to approach them differently based on their species, again changing the fabric of the core "shoot guys, preferably in the face" mechanic. And taking FPS combat into the loot-driven ARPG genre has relieved the latter of its greatest flaw:
The very pinnacle of engagement.
It's fucking boring.
Bringing a more active and visceral combat shell into the genre ends almost all of its flaws. The clickfest genre has, in my opinion, been completely superseded by the loot-em-up. It's faster-paced, it keeps one in the game and out of Microsoft Excel, and it makes the increasingly powerful enemies all the more imposing.
The first Borderlands was entirely carried by this shell. It was an ARPG in every sense but for the shooting mechanics. It had the ball-numbingly safe story, mobs that barely differed at all in the methods with which you dispatched them, and it had an utter superfluity of fetch quests and "kill X things".
Borderlands 2 is a substantial overhaul of all that. The story remains within the tried-and-true boundaries but feels far more Star Wars than The Expendables, the story being the driving force rather than a miserable excuse to get the action going. Every breed of enemy needs to be approached in a different way. And whilst fetch quests do still remain supreme, there are some genuinely interesting ideas in there, from what almost seems like a tower defence parody to missions that will genuinely make some players think about how to resolve them to a cluster of amusing references to 80s schlock. The Sir Hammerlock "Bonerfart" mission is a cool twist on the "Kill X", with the writing coming out swinging to make you laugh even whilst you accomplish what might be a pretty boring task.
The core of Borderlands 2 is pretty damn perfect, I think. In between Borderlands 1 and Borderlands 2, there's been a massive leap, from the strange hybrid game no-one thought was worth copying to a game I think people will struggle to make pale imitations of. It certainly has its flaws: one fetch quest is probably one too many, and there certainly are a few of them, it retains the absolutely bizarre platforming segments of the first, where you need to navigate an avatar designed for shooting through an environment you see in first-person to get to certain chests, and the Fight For Your Life interface is fucking infuriating, with shooting becoming almost impossible as you can no longer clearly make out foes and your character is drastically restricted in their combat options.
But the beating heart of Borderlands 2 is how it combines schools of design to create a game most hardcore gamers will be compelled to beat at least once. Though it keeps the Pavlovian core of the original game, the spectacle of the story and the way Gearbox uses enemy and Vault Hunter design to push players towards a game more actively involving and more varied than both most FPS' and most ARPGs. It's a game with such solid core design that I'm not even sure how a sequel will be much more than a big DLC packet unless some big damn changes go down.
Certainly a duality of meaning to this picture
Normally, I abhor games that focus on the primal responses. With an antic set of nerves, I loathe the humble jump scare. Mortal Kombat sometimes impresses me with the inventive brutality of its kills, but I've always seen it as subordinate to Street Fighter, so much that I believe the optimal way to consume [konsume?] Netherrealms' fighter is to watch the canned kills on YouTube and never really think about it again. And I find games like Dead or Alive Paradise absolutely baffling on a number of levels I can't even go into here.
But we're just animals with a few layers on top. And Borderlands 2 definitely speaks to that.
The mere idea of Recettear: An Item's Shop Tale is exciting for any gamer who plays role-playing games, be they Japanese, Western, Massively Multiplayer, Narratively Driven and so on. The shopkeepers in these games come off as operating not under any recognisable capitalist economic principles but rather under abstract Soviet ones. They have an endless demand for garbage such as Boar Tusks, Mushrooms, or freshly picked Flowers and their prices are absurdly static, escalating as you progress through the game. One wonders how high the cost of living must be in endgame areas where the developers aimed to starve players of items by jacking up prices considerably.
Imagine a game where you play such a shopkeeper, buying the byproducts of level grinding and poorly designed quests. Exploring the absurdities of the genre from an unusual perspective sounds fascinating, and an opportunity for a uniquely styled economic simulation.
Instead Recettear is a hybrid of flash game small business simulators and a bargain basement PS1 action RPG, wrapped up in cutesy animesque stylings. At least it's designed well enough to be addictive, I suppose.
The driving core of Recettear is the Action RPG section, not the item shop mechanics. To show one of the scenes more conventionally used would be disingenuous.
There are fundamentally two very separate parts to Recettear. The first is the item shop management, which is remarkably simplistic. Enveloping this section like a Matryoshka doll is the dungeon delving section, where one plays one of several hired adventurers in a quest for loot. This is the fundamental root of my disappointment with the game; it plays less as an "Item Shop's Tale" and more as "Recette: The Young Girl Who Sponsors Adventurers Using The Easy Money She Makes From Running An Item Shop".
To give the game some credit, the adventuring is at least initially entertaining and contains some strong design elements. Enemies have different methods of attack, which makes the later devolution into palette swaps somewhat less egregious. The adventurers themselves all have their own quirks, from dashes to differing attacks to specials costing MP. There's enough here to at least make sure each character is distinct in gameplay.
Boss fights are a highlight of Recettear's dungeon delving, a rare scripted sequence in a game where randomness makes for extremely poor design.
However, while the individual elements of the game are amusing in a Newgrounds/Kongregate sort of way, when the game tries to unify itself it falls flat on its face. The main reason for adventuring is to gain ingredients, which are used to create powerful items. SO THERE IS A REASON WHY YOU WANT ALL THIS VENDOR TRASH, SHOPKEEPERS! However, despite these being common drops, they are only available through dungeons: no adventurer will ever sell you the Fur Balls he/she presumably gets by the tonne. Instead, you can buy a scarf slightly cheaper than it would be at the marketplace. This is such an obvious misstep in an attempt to link into RPG conventions it hurts. Even more painful is the fact that these drops, despite their low monetary value, are incredibly useful due to the fusion process. Add in the fact that these are random drops and I find myself getting extremely frustrated at the game as I hire adventurers on an epic quest to find Charred Lizards and Slime Fluid.
Furthermore, after you have paid off the debt that drives the story of Recettear [which I will discuss later], the game becomes solely about the dungeon delving. Before, you had to manage time to make sure you sold enough shit at a profit to meet your deadline for an arbitrary amount of money. Dungeon delving is optional, a way early on to get product with minimal investment, later becoming a costly indulgence. As the game progresses, the adventuring becomes pointless until you've paid off your debt, when it becomes the sole focus of the game. Money can't buy you what you need to create fusion items, so questing is more important than maintaining an absurdly fat bank account. And fusion items become little more than boxes to tick off in your item encyclopedia, with the upper tier stuff being purposed solely to deck out your adventurers.
The randomness in this game is a cripplingly huge flaw. Randomness is a tool that can be used to two ends in game design:
1. Forcing players to adapt to new situations and develop new strategies. This is the root of Roguelikes: given random items and challenges in a dungeon, how does the player optimize what he has available to defeat what he must face?
2. Adding easy but tedious game length. This is the bread and butter of MMOs and most RPGs, as you kill endless numbers of faceless creeps to find the one that gives you the rare drop you need.
Recettear goes balls-to-the-wall in favour of randomness for the second reason. There are no choices to be made here, apart from which deity you will pray to in hope that the weird rabbit thing drops another Fur Ball. What's stupid is that the game has a decent depth of content without this randomness. Sure, there are probably 100 hours of content in Recettear as it is, but I'd take 40 gladly if the game didn't make me feel like a rat pushing a button for food whilst playing it.
The story does even less than the gameplay to work with the potential of the concept. One imagines that shopkeepers in role-playing games would be driven by entrepreneurial spirit and a crippling lack of knowledge about such current events as the incoming obliteration of the world by the Villian of the Week. Instead, the game is about a girl named Recette reopening her idiot father's item shop to pay off his excessive debt. This little ditz is joined by snarky fairy/loanshark Tear, and TOGETHER THEY HELP YOU FIGHT TEDIUM
I wish I had the Photoshop skills required to make this joke good. Instead, here's a vague reference to a thing I think is similar. Fill in the blanks yourself. Pretend this pathetic attempt at a joke is instead a commentary on Recettear's complete failure to achieve its obvious potential.
All of this combines to make me feel irritated at Recettear and its developers. A game about managing an item shop should not fundamentally ignore what makes gamers so excited about the concept of managing an item shop in the first place. It should not become the grindy, maddening slot machine RPG that the concept seems tailor-made to parody. I can't think of a concept that could properly make the camel that is Recettear feel like a tailored, smooth game. The concept it does have seems to belong to some much more stylish, self-aware stallion.
I think we take for granted just what a well-suited creative concept can do for one's desire to play a game. The Mass Effect series angers me partially because I think a universe that throws back to classic space opera should lead to gameplay far more based in space combat and planetary exploration than sludgy barrier-fondling shooting. The perfection of the surreal nature of Mario games make them the archetypical platforming experience, and this weirdness is replicated in almost all quality platforming experiences. The solving of bizarre layouts using strange physics whilst under assault from enemies with the memories of stereotypical goldfish makes a more realistic approach a decidedly unwise approach. That Bioshock wrapped itself in Randian fable and reflexive meta-commentary is what makes that game so important to me, and what draws me back in despite the stupidity of the U-Invent Stations, my inability to play FPSes competently, and my irritation at myriad other elements.
Recettear is a serviceable game, but it is a mongrel. It lacks a purity of concepts and the gameplay is flabby, untouched by the pruning a developer should have done to make it a more cohesive and enjoyale experience. As videogames evolve as a medium, we discover elements that make games enjoyable that players and developers had never previously consciously considered. The importance of working around human psychology to create an enjoyable experience is becoming ever greater. In the indie sector, many games are defined by their concept, and fail or succeed based on their ability to live up to such a concept. We're drawn to play Recettear because of what it could offer, a satire of videogame quirks that works through gameplay. Instead it fulfills those tired tropes, and ultimately I feel like it's merely a blueprint for a better experience because of it.