Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Confession: I am bad at strategy games

 I actually don't know how to play strategy games.

I can fake a good game of StarCraft, because I spent a few years of high school memorizing build orders and counters. None of that is stuff I learned in the game, although I practiced it in the game. It's all things other people figured out, shared, tested, and canonized as "pro strats". 

The strategy games I play maintain a balance between expanding to gain access to more resources, and risking overextending yourself. You need to expand to increase your income to buy more units, but more territory means more surface area for a hostile army to smash through, disrupting your plans and putting your hard-won settlements in danger. I understand how this works in StarCraft, where every map has an easily accessible (and defensible) expansion node. Every build order has a set of conditions for you to establish your second base. You scout for your opponent's base, see what strategy they are attempting, and adjust your build order to react. At low levels, where I am comfortable, seeing your opponent is putting everything into an early rush and shifting to defend yourself is enough to take control of the game. At high levels, scouting and skirmishes lead to counter-builds and counter-counter builds until someone makes a mistake under pressure. I know this because for a time all I did was play, read and watch StarCraft matches. I spent a lot of time invested in StarCraft. Unfortunately, very little of that has translated into other games in the genre.

It's amazing how the strategy genre seems uninvested in teaching players the strategy of the game. Civilization essentially throws you into the deep end after a cursory explanation of basic mechanics. Right click to move units, use Settlers to make cities, the Production statistic makes more stuff and hills have the most Production. They tell you what to do. The traditional strategy game tutorial does not discuss: How do you think about opportunity versus risk? The Civilization tutorial does not discuss: what is the optimal build order? When should you think about building a new Settler versus building a new Warrior? Why would you choose to research Archery over Writing? They do not tell you how to think about these things, the underlying "why" of one choice should be made over the other. It leaves you to stew over these choices which seem critical, but without the tools to understand the consequences of your choice. You are left with the "what" but not the "why". 

I'm sure the trial and error is part of the fun, and that's fine. And also, a game of Civilization is like 60 hours long? I have about an hour of free time a night after putting my kids to bed and cleaning up. There are still Pro Strategy videos and YouTubers and Discord channels. At this point in my life, I would prefer to spend that time in a game. Not reading about a game, or watching a game, or failing at a game 40 hours in and starting over to try and grasp at abstract principles. Clearly, there exist people who understand the what and the why. Fighting games have been working on their tutorials over the past decade to include players in the incredibly complex, arcane language and principles of the genre. These tutorials go beyond simple basics and try to show not just what moves can be done, but the reason for specific moves to be done. 

I picked up Total War: Warhammer 3, which is my first Total War game. I am baffled by how to properly compose an army. I am unsure of how aggressively to expand, when my cities seem like an enemy army could descend on them at any second and it's too expensive to maintain an third or fourth standing army. What buildings do I build? Which demon lord to I dedicate tribute to? The game came out recently, and the online guides I found are either incredibly basic or entirely focused on the endgame. The tutorial was mostly focused on making sure I know what the interface did. I have no sense of the cost/benefit of any of my actions. I feel overwhelmed. It's been like this for the last few strategy games I've picked up. I thought I enjoyed this genre, based on my time playing StarCraft and Alpha Centauri as a teen. Maybe I've burned out? Maybe I don't want to spend all my time reading about strategy online? 

This post really stuck out to me, especially points 4 and 5: "Why does a game's UI or UX need to be well-designed when fans will create in-depth guides for free?..." I don't know what the "right" design looks like for strategy games as a genre. My design principles are that I would like to have information about the decision I am going to make, and if that decision has long-term consequences, I would like help calculating the long-term impact. If building a Settler instead of a Warrior incurs a temporary penalty but confers a long-term multiplier, helping me calculate the exact nature of the long-term multiplier helps me understand why it's a good decision. If getting 10% more damage per attack means battles end 3 rounds earlier and saves me 4 hit points per engagement, I would like to know that exact information instead of having to break out a calculator or a spreadsheet to figure it out myself. To some extent, this "solves" the game by making decisions easy. Another way of looking at "making decisions easy" is it removes busy work only done by the truly dedicated and gives me the best information available to make my decisions. If that removes all the interesting tension from the game, it's possibly not a game I wanted to play to begin with. 

The ultimate danger in playing designer is that games must be marked "complete" and shipped. That constraint on development time leads to picking and choosing which features to implement. If it comes down to choosing between "make calculations more legible for novice players" versus "add another faction", it's hard to argue that my preference is the correct preference.  Yet when fighting games added detailed information about why their games worked, and not just how, they expanded their audience beyond the traditional hardcore players. Is it so impossible to imagine that making strategy games more legible would bring new people in to the fold? 

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Tunic's Manual

As you play Tunic, you can pick up glowing paper pieces in game. These become the "Manual", accessible from the menu. The manual  was the most captivating and charming part of the game for me. It was plot delivery vehicle, tips guide, map, puzzle delivery mechanism, and made me feel closer to an imaginary player.

The first cool thing is that when you are reading the manual in-game, the game actually changes style in the background as the manual comes into focus. Your view of the game pulls back from the clean animation of the normal playview and becomes a blurry, low-res, cathode-ray tube-scanlined pixelated mess. Just as the manual recalls Zelda 2's manual with intentional precision, the contrast between game-view in the background and game-view when playing is exactly like playing an old console game. In practice, the graphics of old console games were a blurry mess. In my mind, I would fill in the blurs like I was viewing an impressionistic painting, and imagine a world as fully detailed and beautiful as the game-view when playing Tunic. 

Normal game-view
Manual-view of the same scene. The effect is more drastic in later-game areas

The Tunic manual has little pen scribbles in it, as if another player went through and made notes. The first time I went through a dungeon, I carefully called up the marked-up map from the manual and compared it to the game-view. It was a delight to decode the map's scribbled "x"s on the floor as spike traps in the dungeon, the doodled arrows as treasure chests tucked away. It felt like I was communicating with a past player, decoding their language so they could speak directly to me. While it wasn't helpful at first (the spike traps are obvious, the treasure chests aren't particularly obscured), it was a pleasure all the same to feel in communion with another player. Those notes did come in handy later, as a few of the more deviously hidden chests were penned in.

The manual has a little bit of the setting and background of the game in it. The pieces of the manual are placed along the linear path you are forced to travel, so your reconstruction of the manual is paced by  your progress through the game. Normally, manuals are meant to be seperate from games. They come in the box, separate from the game cartridge or disk and you flip through their whole contents at your leisure with no restrictions. However, in this game, the manual is only exposed to you piece by piece and out of order. This is used to the highest effect after the Ruined Atoll. Upon completing the Ruined Atoll, there are some story revelations which play out. After the completion of these revelations, you get the manual piece which explains more of the backstory. The backstory is near the front of the manual, but those beginning pages are only revealed to you only after you have witnessed its consequences for yourself in game. The standard narrative delivery of show and tell gets more complex. You are shown, then the manual tells you, but the whole time you feel the manual has been hiding this from you. It was in the early pages of the manual, but the manual was kept from you. It should have been obvious to you if only the manual was whole. I found that incredibly fascinating. 

The final part I like about the manual is that it doesn't make any sense. The manual has coffee stains on it to go with the pen scribbles. It has physical markings from coffee and pens on it, therefore it existed in a "physical" world. The manual talks about Tunic as a video game with references to SNES-style Save and Load screens that don't exist. Yet the manual is only accessible within the game, and its pieces are scattered throughout the game. The manual is critical, withholding key information from you unless you pick up the pieces. I don't believe it's possible to finish the game without some very specific instructions contained within the manual (unless you go online to read a walkthrough from someone who did read the manual). And the final scene of the good end of the game is (Spoilers here): The Hero reading the well-hidden first page of the manual, breaking the cycle you would otherwise find yourself trapped in if you didn't go through the many puzzles needed to finally collect it. The dual existence of the manual as real-world artifact and in-game guide is never explained, and I'm glad. If there's one lesson I've learned from Inscryption and The Hex it's that metatextual narratives get really boring and silly really fast. Videogames have a proud history of nonsense, from Mario's turtles, mushrooms and pipes through to taking a grenade to the face and sitting behind a wall to heal up. Things don't make sense and it's fine! Less exposition and more impressionism for me, please. 

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Genesis Noir

This essay discusses the full plot of Genesis Noir, including elements of the ending. I encourage you to read it even if you haven't played the game.

I enjoyed Genesis Noir. I also struggled with two parts of it. It's a noir game containing femme fatales, down on their luck schlubs. It's also a jazz game - the "Improvisation" chapter features jazz solos, but the text and story also feels free-form. There's a structure, but there's also a lot left up to interpretation. The noir sections dead-ended for me in some pretty straightforward misogyny. The free-form nature of the plot left me a bit confused.

Genesis Noir's invocation of the femme fatale, Miss Mass, is a singer with an apparent alcohol problem and a bad marriage. She invites a plastered No-Man, already besotted by her lounge singing act, for a sexy rendezvous, and that sets into motion a jealous husband. The husband shoots Miss Mass, and No-Man... I can't explain this part, revisits the Big Bang through the heat death of the Universe to save her? We'll come back to that. 

Miss Mass is absolutely a femme fatale. No-Man finds a prehistoric Venus figurine, it reminds him of Miss Mass. She's Woman Incarnate, all curves, etc etc etc. Miss Mass draws No-Man into trouble. Miss Mass is little more than the femme fatale stereotype. However, that's not the thing that's got me all het up. 

During the Hunt chapter, a woman kills a stag you are silently communing with. The piece of horn you retrieve from its corpse is labelled - "Fatally sought after - feminine hands wished to possess it".

Screenshot: A curved antler, captioned "The remains of a male creature born from the ashes of a dead star. Fatally sought after - feminine hands wished to possess it"

This is what infuriated me. This is Original Sin, Eve caused the downfall of Man, Grade A level bullshit. You can draw a direct line from this to the Femme Fatale device - No-Man is innocent until he sought Miss Mass. The innocent stag is slaughtered by the greedy Female. This, very conveniently, strips both No-Man's agency as well as the agency of Miss Mass' husband, Golden Boy who fires the gun which triggers this whole thing! Golden Boy is winking at you from within almost every chapter, his profile greets you at the end of each  chapter. Miss Mass is only seen in memories or in posters after the game starts. You can catch a glimpse of her in the Chapter Select screen as she sits, helpless to her inevitable fate. She is the axis of this whole thing, and she is barely spared a glance. All you need to know about her is her curves. She is Feminine. 

I don't think noir needs to be inherently misogynistic, and maybe that's naive of me. Miss Mass is barely visible in the story and I don't think that's the only way to tell this story. I definitely don't think "Fatally sought after (because) feminine hands wished to possess" needed to be a theme, let alone a specific line in this game. 

So onto the other part, the whole "revisiting the big bang" thing. Each chapter opens with a quick paragraph about cosmological history which sets the scene for the chapter, which then relates back to the plot of No-Man, Miss Mass and Golden Boy. Mostly. For example, the first chapter is "Seeding". It opens discussing the state of the universe pre-Big Bang, how the surface began to wrinkle before expanding outward to create the universe as we know it, and in the chapter you plant seeds in the wrinkles of the earth as the characters are lightly introduced. So there is a cosmological metaphor: the beginning wrinkles of the mass of pre-expansion matter concentrated in the Universe. The cosmological metaphor is linked to the gameplay metaphor: planting seeds as "wrinkles" to expand the paths you can travel, expanding the area you can travel to. Both are linked to the narrative: the beginnings of the characters before they explode into the action at the climax of the gunshot Golden Boy fires at Miss Mass. That's a complex and interesting balancing act to tie the cosmological metaphor to the gameplay to the plot. I have a lot of respect for this attempt and it's why I enjoyed the game so much even as the misogyny gives me pause.

The gunshot Golden Boy fires is itself represented as a star-filled field (which is also the chapter select screen), and the plan No-Man forms to save Miss Mass is represented as creating a black hole to redirect the bullet away from her. As No-Man moves through the game, he maybe creates a black hole on Mars? And then is confronted with, like... A being of pure energy, who is also a representation of some of the people he met along the way. Maybe. This is where that delicate balance of the cosmological metaphor tying itself to the gameplay tying itself to the plot starts to fray for me. I'm simply not sure how literally to read some of this. 

The soundtrack to Genesis Noir is jazz. I love jazz. Part of jazz is ignoring traditional structural constraints, such as the act of improvisation - not going off of what is printed on the sheet, but inventing new structures according to a new and different set of rules. One jazz movement that stretched the boundaries of traditional constraints was called astral jazz . Therefore I do think it's a mistake to take a very strict literalist approach to the text of Genesis Noir and say for example "No-Man is a literal God who fell in love with a mortal woman, and this is the story of his attempt to save her by recreating the Universe". That seems to go against the text about the Constant, which is defined as mostly a feeling, which feels different for different people. It goes against the ethos of astral jazz, trying to box something freeform into a more familiar structure.

There's some degree of literalism the game wants to reach for. Genesis Noir is reaching for a coherent link between a cosmological metaphor, gameplay and plot. That link fell apart for me by the end of the game. Other parts, like a watch that I think No-Man sold to Miss Mass which she gave to Golden Boy, I simply failed to follow in the cutscene. 

If we try to read it more metaphorically, I'm still not confident it all holds up. Let's grant that Miss Mass is metaphorically mass, just because of her name. Golden Boy could be energy, both because of his name and I guess his role in setting life in motion in Reflections. No-Man is time for his jaunt through the history of the universe and the watches he carries. That transforms the story into a standin for entropy: time loves people, but they must die as energy+time inevitably causes entropy. But the love is with Miss Mass, who never shows up in any other form in the jaunt through history even as Golden Boy is omnipresent. And why is it an affair, with a jealous lover? Why the purchased watch, the implication of jealousy, the insinuation that Miss Mass is unhappy with Golden Boy, how is it possible to achieve a happy ending with.... whoever that character that shows up at the end is? So even a metaphorical read seems to fall apart on deeper examination. 

In contrast, if the game wanted to explode into pure mysticism, it didn't go far enough for me.. A mystical interpretation might have implied a degree of interconnectedness between Golden Boy, largely forgotten by the end, and Miss Mass, never truly examined as a character (There's that misogyny again!). 

Genesis Noir gave me a good time. It's an adventure game with an incredible style, and talking only about its metaphors and its music leaves out the slapstick comedy or the tight prose which genuinely caught me by surprise with its brutal efficiency. The structural flaws in Genesis Noir make it more interesting to talk about, even if what comes out is mostly criticism. And even the criticism is on a gradient. The misogyny of the "feminine hands" honestly stopped me in my tracks, and it makes me wonder about how well some things like the tribal mask and accent on the Hunter character were thought through, or the potential Orientalism of the Ronin storyline. Compared to the shock of those concerns, my difficulty following the cosmological metaphors is petty, but still an important part of how I experienced the game. Sometimes we can have beautiful experiences in unsavory places, and isn't that the most noir concept of all? 

Monday, February 7, 2022

Inscryption and spoilers

Spoiler culture is making it difficult for me to understand if I would like things before I buy them. When we conceal important information about plot, we also abandon discussing how well the plot is executed for fear of ruining the concealment.

When we say that we are hesitant to discuss Umurangi Generation's plot, we are therefore hesitant to discuss whether the metaphorical standin of kaiju for climate change is effectively executed: are the kaiju, in fact, a metaphor for climate change? Is that metaphor good or appropriate or inappropriate? Are there deeper cultural themes that can be mined? I did not see this hesitation when discussing Don't Look Up - it was merely a fact. "The meteor is going to fall and it is a metaphor for climate change". Many pieces of criticism then focused on how well or not well that metaphor was executed, or if even focusing on the metaphor was missing the point. "The kaiju will come and it is a metaphor for climate change" was not something that resonated with me. It seemed to resonate with others but I found it difficult to tease that opinion out because so many people were so coy about the entire premise! 

Inscryption is a cardgame pretending to be a roguelike deckbuilder walking you through a found footage horror game. You play through multiple game themes as the characters inside the game change the style of game to suit their needs, but Inscryption fundamentally remains a card game with escape room elements. I bought it because every description of Inscryption was "You <spoiler> until the <spoiler> but boy once you get past act 1 <spoiler>!!! PS don't read spoilers until you have played the game!!! save yourself for the first time ;)"

A double bind. If I read the spoilers and play the game because I am complaining about spoiler culture and the first response will be "then go seek out spoilers", I have missed out on the experience for the first time by reading spoilers. The experience has been diminished, as I was warned, and the fact the experience didn't sit right with me is because I spoiled myself. But because I didn't read spoilers, I ended up finding out myself that the spoilers were essentially hiding that this was a card game and not much else. I'm like 8 hours in and on act....3? and it's still a card game. I actually don't like card games that much! Inscryption is fine, and doing some mildly interesting things, but I would have made some different purchasing decisions if people weren't working so hard to conceal "At the end of act 1, it becomes a slightly different card game". 

Spoilers are fine for spectacle. You shouldn't go out of your way to ruin a magician's tricks. What is a magician's trick vs what is a serious work of artistry deserving of deep thought and criticism is a matter of opinion. I'm not going to say that the sudden last-act appearance of the supernatural isn't a cool thing to be surprised by. The sudden last-act appearance of the supernatural can also be a cheap deus ex machina, and feel unearned. A work that puts effort into weaving threads together for a payoff beyond a single flourish is also a beautiful thing to contemplate! Things which attempt those heights are deserving of contemplation and open, honest discussion! Stomping that discussion out because someone will have their first experience of that appearance ruined makes me wince. I mean, don't shout it in their face if they're waiting in line. Be respectful, definitely! But on the internet, queues of people waiting to play something aren't so easily delineated. An abundance of caution means I'm finding it harder to find any discussion of the actual content of plot and meaning, because they are shielded behind layers and layers of "We don't even want to put this behind spoiler tags because you might accidentally look and ruin the experience". 

Sunday, January 2, 2022

2021 - Fiction books

Here are the fiction books that stuck with me this year. I read a lot of genre fiction, mostly sci fi and fantasy, and while I have plenty of recommendations, only a few things really defined "my year" in reading fiction. 

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots

I can't stop recommending this book. Captain Awkward and Ask a Manager recommended this book. It's about a gig worker who picks up a temp job for a supervillain, gets incidentally injured by a superhero, and then uses spreadsheets in a quest for revenge because she can't afford the medical bills. It's hilarious, it's angry, it's got gross body horror. (Also, the author wrote for First Person Scholar and Kotaku??)

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

I personally don't really know what happened in the Soviet Union. Seems bad, right? Seems bad? Red Plenty is "historical fiction", an attempt to tell a true story through dramatized fictions. It is very human and neither "Hooray capitalism" nor "Truly the glory of Father Stalin will rise again". There are people who are trying to make the world better, and it just doesn't come together for them, and along the way, there are horrors. 

Driving the Deep by Suzanne Palmer

Ok, this is the second book in a series, and I'm not saying to skip the first book. But I am saying this book has a great setting: an underwater settlement on a moon of Saturn where  the protagonist drives an underwater truck route between disconnected bases while investigating a missing person. It is fun, it is pulp, and the setting has stuck with me. 

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Baru is a savant whose island home is assimilated by empire. She rises through the ranks of the "meritocracy" and swears to destroy the Empire from within. 

Through the trilogy, she is confronted with people who share her goals. Some of them have been assimilated themselves, and can no longer fulfill their goals because of how thoroughly they have been assimilated. Some of them have cast off their shackles entirely, and live wild and free. She must negotiate these boundaries for herself, somewhere between these two extremes. Also, she runs arbitrage schemes to fund herself, which is fantastic reading for a year where I have once again become obsessed with cryptocurrency scams. 

The Hands of the Emperor by Victoria Goddard

This is a fantasy series, but the magic is not the point. The real fantasy is good, competent governance. That alone made it worth reading this year.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

2021 - Nonfiction books

Here are the non-fiction books I enjoyed in 2021. 

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

I was born in upstate NY and later moved to the Pacific NW, and the author lives in Upstate NY and visits and discusses the Pacific NW. i kind of forgot about my relationship to nature even though I grew up next to a polluted river, and went to college by a polluted river, and now live in a city where the salmon are dying due to tire tread runoffs. This book reminded me that I do love the “natural” world around me, and I am going to share it with others to explain why it’s important to care about these things. I think it has some hitches so, again, I wouldn't make this like the only book you ever read by or about Native Americans , please. But I think it is a useful reminder that we are a part of nature and not separate from it or banished from it. 

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C Scott

Ok, listen, I did not finish this book. I got through the first chapter. That said, it has a totally fascinating thesis and set of examples, and you should like.... check it out from a library, especially if you like strategy video games. It's an anarchist criticism of bureaucracy starting with the example of forest science in Europe (which ties in beautifully to Braiding Sweetgrass, if you're reading along).

White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America by  Margaret A. Hagerman

This book is a scorching sociological study that shows how education is the knife's edge of white supremacy in the United States, especially if you're intentionally picking "nice schools" for your kid to go to. A good companion piece is the "Nice White Parents" podcast produced by the New York Times. 

White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism  by  Robin DiAngelo

How to Be an Antiracist  by Ibram X. Kendi

At some point I looked at all of the "antiracist reading lists" and said "Well I should probably figure out what people are reading when they start following these lists", and these two books were at the top of the list. And, look, I work for a megacorp that does a fair amount of Diversity Training. And I was kind of primed for White Fragility to be bad, but actually I ... found it useful? It names specific behaviors that white people exhibit in these diversity training workshops and the best ways to confront and deal with these behaviors, and gives some specific historical context for defusing those behaviors. Readers, I actually used White Fragility, in the real world, at work. So it shouldn't be the only book anyone reads about racism, but it's not full of like outright poison. It is from a white woman about how to deal with white people. There's a place for that, right? 

Kendi's work is also, for the most part, pretty good! Much deeper on history and context. I just think he dips a bit more into "People need to use these words the way I'm defining them", which I personally think is never a winning strategy, and he has an aside of "and I think people need to protest the way I think they should protest", which I will also say does not sit great with me, a white dude in Seattle. I don't think my opinion counts a ton here, but I think he's got some rough edges just the same. 

We Do This 'Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice by Mariame Kaba


The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together Heather McGhee

This is a book that seeks to tackle, "why does racism persist when it makes both black people's lives worse *and* white people's lives worse?" and the author is up to the task. She starts off with public swimming pools which filled with concrete rather than serve black folks, and then travels around talking people organizing labor, trying to fix up pollution, and so on. Clear and accessible, an easy recommendation for anyone. 

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

Ok, I picked this up due to an offhand reference from the book "Calling Bullshit", because for SOME REASON I was interested in how to think about people rejecting scientific answers for the problems, ahem, plaguing us. Sagan is a compassionate dude, and his voice is sorely missed, and also this book could use some updates both virus-related and "It is literally no longer 1995 and we talk about some things differently now, Carl". Also, this book veers wildly between UFOs (...which mysteriously became relevant again? Was that this year? Did you know the crop circle stuff was absolutely a scam and we know who made crop circles in England? I didn't!), the literal history of witch hunts, and bunch of other stuff that isn't necessarily well-connected. However, it's the history of witch hunts that I think is the most important part of the book. That history has specifics which are important to know when people start talking about, say, demonic sex cults. 

The Doctor Who Fooled the World: Science, Deception, and the War on Vaccines by Brian Deer

So HBomberguy had a video about vaccines and he referenced this book. I thought I understood that Andrew Wakefield was a fraud, but I did not understand the sheer depth and layers to the fraud. If you are interested in vaccine hesitancy FOR SOME REASON, this book is an incredible read. 

Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison

This isn't a diet book, it's a "Here is all the scientific evidence that the relationship between fat and health is much different than virtually anyone, including doctors, talks about, and it's a lot of studies, and I know because I'm a nutritionist" book. Goes great with the Maintenance Phase podcast. 

Fulfillment: Winning and Losing in One-Click America by Alec Macgillis

This is nominally a book about Amazon fulfillment centers, but is really about how urban/rural divides don't sufficiently explain America. Even "urban" areas have been split into winners and losers, and the gulf between them is vast. 

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx

I went to college but the closest I had to a "radical Marxist" professor was one time in class a professor said "Marx was a more subtle critic of capitalism than he often gets credit for". Chilling! There's a lot more about "Nationalizing farms" than I expected. Also, a lot more digs at German philosophers. However, there was in fact a lot of subtlety and a fair amount of prescience. 

Friday, December 31, 2021

2021 - Games I Struggled With

I've been keeping track of my games on Backloggery, but in the interest of reducing dependence on other services, I'm also posting my reviews here.

Here are games that I struggled with. They weren't bad, but also the experience of playing them was frustrating in a manner that I did not find useful.

Paradise Killer (2020)


I love vaporwave and I love the world building. I did not love the total lack of a map which had me looking up how to enter several key locations or the fact that the soundtrack - which I started off loving - wore a hole in my brain. I mostly liked the investigations, but upon reading some walkthroughs after I finished, discovered I missed a whole plot thread because I missed a pile of dirt. That about sums up my problem with the genre as a whole; you can have tightly scripted interactions with no deviance ensuring I never miss anything even as I am force-fed a plot with deductions I may not have reached myself, or reached hours ago, or you can have freedom to miss large chunks of the plot. Basically this game was super cool and stylish, marred by minor-to-moderate mechanical mishaps.

After I finished, the essay Lady Love Dies can not save you resonated very deeply with me, especially after my experience as a juror (my experience as a juror came before I played Paradise Killer, for what it's worth)

Umurangi Generation (2021)


i really appreciated the visual aesthetic and the soundtrack, i really appreciated the slow burn of the story that gets told. i really appreciated that this is first and foremost a game about photography, about lining up a great photo.

i did not appreciate the controls, i did not appreciate the opaque and difficult to locate objectives, i did not appreciate the time pressure, and let's be honest even though i'm the biggest doomer of them all, i'm gonna go ahead and say: the game did not speak to me (except for the very last line of the game) nearly as strongly as it did some other people about being a member of "the last generation". i spent more time hunting down "the word boomer" or "a kiwi" than i did soaking in the message. It was good theming. It was a good plot. But my way of interacting with it meant I had a much more visceral reaction to the objective to take a picture of characters wearing masks and the billboards warning people to stay home due to parasitic infections. I don't think that's really a failure of the game - I do think it's legitimately got that stuff in its pocket - but I think the experience of playing the game mostly moves all of the textual stuff to the category of sideshow. 

of course, after writing all of this, i finally got around to reading Kaile's excellent pieces on this game and I discovered that once again, i'm unintentionally falling into the role of "some reviewers" who didn't find the game hitting like they expected. I think part of this is that I am, in fact, engaging with a game in a very specific environment: heavy time pressure (i get about 1 hour of quality time with a game a night, and if I don't like something I end up disengaging rather quickly), heavy peer pressure (it was the knowledge that Kaile had published a 3 part essay that made me want to finally get around to playing this game), and the overall media context that surrounds games which do something different. What I mean by the media context is: the overwhelming context of videogames tends to be "New Halo, new Battlefield, New Call of Duty, New Nintendo release". As a rejection of that suffocating sameness, there's a circle of folks who try to shine a spotlight on stuff like Umurangi Generation, the dev's "first real game". Therefore the lens a lot of people come to this game is through "new game with an original outlook". In contrast, the default lens of videogame culture is "shiny AAA move fast no friction". It's not necessarily that one is right and the other is wrong, they're just different frames to look at when you're playing a game. Sometimes I feel like kind of a simpleton because I do actually like move fast no friction. I think that good design is neat and fun (while acknowledging it can also be a tool used to paper over abuse or waste, or be used to gatekeep people who don't have access to the training or resources to invest in design and polish). I don't want to diminish people who value unique games because I think unique games are incredibly important and I also want to see unique games succeed! I just sometimes personally don't connect to something unique, feel bad about not connecting to it, and then feel defensive about how I personally didn't connect. 

That said, an anecdote:

the dlc is unlocked after you finish the game, but the first level is two weeks before the events of the main game. In this flashback DLC, the first level is a club full of partygoers and TVs with false bravado about how great everything is and nothing can possibly go wrong in two weeks time. One objective requires you to go up to the entrance of the club - under a sign that says "LOCKDOWN ENDS IN 7 HOURS" - where the door jitters open and shut, to indicate it's not in fact the level boundary it appears to be. Once you go through the door, you exit the club. The doors shut behind you. The omnipresent soundtrack drops out and for the first time in the game you have silence. The crusty punks who have been present in the main line of the game are once again here, in contrast to the the well-dressed members of the nightclub. The silence is cut by announcements - "LOCKDOWN IS IN EFFECT. EVERYONE IS REQUIRED TO SEEK SHELTER". A tent sits in the corner of the alley. As I reentered the club, I noticed the bouncer at the foot of the entry stairs. He wasn't there to keep *me* from the comfortable shelter of the nightclub. 

That scene from the DLC rung a lot more true for me than many of the other scenes from the main game. The eerieness of the music cutting out, the severity of the first fully-voiced announcement in the whole game, the sudden contrast between the poverty outside and the wealth inside the club, it all combined to push me to look hard at what the nightclub really represented. I did not get the same experience from exploring the UN Wall or on a train ride home (especially when I was busy clipping through the tracks, slipping off the walls, and clipping through the map). 

Kid A Mnesia Exhibition (2021) 


i mean you're not gonna get me to sit down to pyramid song and have me say I had a bad time, but... i'm just not really sure what's in it unless you are a mega die-hard fan. there's some new intros and outros in the songs. there's some neat poster art.

there's like some degree of interplay between your movement and the music, but i honestly expected more from radiohead? I imagine them as very cutting edge and while this wasn't like a straightforward a-to-b experience - there is nice vibes in the art, there's some legitimately interesting stuff in the geometry and design - it was pretty much "Stand here, hear a song, or maybe just the drum track of a song". And again: it's a great album! just the drum track isolated is interesting and good! but god it feels like a waste of possibilities to get "stand on this poster to hear a different sound". rhythm games do more with getting you into the music and walking sims do more with getting you into the environment.

i think if you haven't listened to the album you will get the ~vibes~ from this game, but honestly just listen to the album? it stands on its own, and associating it with this weird art game will probably be kind of confusing or make you think the album is more inaccessible than it is. and if you're a huge fan of the album you will get a kick out of hearing it slightly recontextualized. but i've honestly played better album-games than this, and i'm really disappointed i have to say that

Outer Wilds (2019)


Look, it's a good setting, and it's good sci-fi, but I can't shake the feeling that I paid $25 for this game to call me an idiot over and over again. Is the time loop really necessary? Do I really need an excruciating flashback of my slow and oncoming death because the sun kidnapped my ship while I was trying to find the exact place to stand on a travelling meteor? Do I need the creeping time pressure of a collapsing planet as I try to figure out the exact non-Euclidian route I need to take to get inside a tower that maybe has the next breadcrumb that might maybe make me feel like I've made progress?

Again, the setting is good. Each planet is different. It does fun things with gravity and perspective and it's genuinely creative. I just wish I was playing a walking simulator sometimes, because I'm old, and I get frustrated when I know that jellyfish are electrically resistant and this surface is electric but I can't figure out the exact sequence of steps I need to take in order to combine those two facts before the sun explodes and I get to watch a playback of my jerk avatar failing to solve a puzzle for 15 seconds over mournful music.

My primary emotions are embarrassment, anger and exhaustion instead of wonder and awe.