Friday, August 26, 2022

Xenoblade Chronicles 3 - Midway

This post will graze over superficial mechanical and plot elements of Xenoblade Chronicles 3 by roughly the 50-60 hour mark (~chapter 5). This is all stuff I enjoyed discovering on my own, so if you'd prefer to discover it on your own, don't read!

I'm super into XBC3. Emily Price's piece relates it to a YA novel and that's fair. It has the weird dystopian setup, strong characters, and you are reminded frequently that the protagonists are literally children. 

I think the single most interesting thing about the writing is the colonies. Most of the sidequests revolve around liberating colonies from their Flame Clocks (yes, they do make a comeback from their weird initial introduction). Each colony is distinct, from its iconic Ferronis looming over the settlement to the philosophy of the commander who inevitably joins you as a party member, to the makeup of the people inhabiting it. Some colonies are full of the youngest children, others have hardened warriors or logistical geniuses. Some commanders are philosophers who want to ensure you wield power in service of dismantling oppression, others are masking their youth with put-upon airs (and heavy makeup) to project strength and hide potential weakness. 

As each commander joins you, and gives you additional side quests, you are given hardcore doses of straight rhetoric. The game does not cloak its points in metaphor. It is incredibly direct. Characters tell you "Rules are closely entangled with the intentions of whoever set them", "People who see something bad happening in the world and do nothing to stop it because they are personally comfortable in the status quo are also villains". It's actually very refreshing to not have to hunt around the detrius of a game for the themes! 

XBC3 is about an oppressive world set up by and for a class of elites who survive by making people who should have common cause into each other's enemies. Keves and ....Agnes (look, I can't remember the factions names, or who belong to which faction, or which bonus goes to who) have no real differences. Our band of protagonists proves that. Yet they are supposed to be "enemies", locked in eternal war, because of machinations by the Consuls/Mobius. Soldiers die, convinced of the justness of their cause. Mobius benefits, regardless of which side wins. The machinery of war grinds on. This is, unfortunately, deeply relatable. 

Gosh, I'd love to share some of the screenshots I took, but it's impossible to get them off my Switch!

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Xenoblade Chronicles 3

 I am about 4 hours into Xenoblade Chronicles 3 and it is already miles ahead of XBC2. I enjoyed XBC1, and XBC2 was mechanically more-or-less the same. If XBC1 was about friendship and interlocking systems, though, XBC2 was about.... harems? Sexism? Gacha?

In contrast, XBC3 is about death. It's not new ground for a game, but it's a welcome retreat from XBC2, or even Xenoblade Chronicles X, which I mostly understand to be about how Los Angeles is an alien and unwelcoming environment . In XBC3, characters talk about death constantly. You are rewarded for stopping at soldier's corpses and giving them a brief funeral. There's even a brief appearance of a "flame clock", essentially a death clock, which (again, four hours in) suddenly disappears with no apparent consequence and having no apparent use. I'm interested if that inconsequential mechanic is intentionally setting up a callback or if its going to get lost in the next 100 hours. 

I find myself very interested in the story! I want to see where it takes me next.

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Multiple, Interlocking Crises

I have a very clear memory from the 2008 financial crisis. My dormmate walked into my room and said "The bank that owns my student loans just went under. I don't know what happens now". We joked that she wouldn't have to pay the loans back, but we knew that such an easy out wouldn't exist for her. 

We graduated into the resulting depression. I saw Occupy Wall Street spring up, and though my incredible privilege of landing a tech job, moved to Seattle where I saw a similar Occupy encampment at Westlake Park every day as I waited for the bus.  I, personally, was OK in this environment. I could also see that plainly, lots of people were not OK. I did everything I could to learn about the underlying causes of the disaster. I watched the causes get rewritten to suit political purposes: Not the repeal of the Glass-Steagall, but individuals acting irresponsibly. Not the fraudulent and deceptive practices of gigantic firms, but ignorant home buyers extending themselves beyond their means. 

Regardless of the perceived causes, the US Federal Government response to the crisis was not well received. The best defense for the bailouts is that they prevented a larger crisis. The harshest criticism is that the bailouts rewarded failure with no commensurate punishment, and set us up for another crisis in the near future while giving no relief to those who suffered the most. One response to these highly criticized bailouts was the creation of Bitcoin

I haven't said too much on this blog about my opposition to cryptocurrency. In short, I think blockchain is technologically unimpressive (1, 2, 3), socially a scam (1, 2 , 3) and ecologically devastating. In the past month, it has experienced a sharp collapse related to several kinds of shady activity which draws several natural comparisons to 2008. 

Matt Levine, a financial commentator, says:

 I keep saying that crypto is having its 2008 financial crisis, but it’s much more interesting than that, isn’t it? [...] In a sense crypto is having many different tiny 2008 crises all at once

The products that were invented as a response to perceived financial corruption are now experiencing (another) sharp collapse related to financial corruption. If this is truly a 2008 analogue, we can expect another set of distractions related to the root cause: It's not the fault of a lack of regulations, it's the fault of feckless investors who didn't do their own research. It's not that the entire cryptocurrency ecosystem was built on a house of cards, it's Joe Biden's fault for doing currency inflation. 

Of course, the fact that the crypto crash is happening at the same time as several other crises is appropriate for the time. We live in a time of multiple, interlocked crises. Housing, climate, a pandemic, racial injustice, economic inequality, gender and sexual oppression, all have impacts on each other and feed into each other. It is a popular theory that the Covid pandemic fueled crypto investments, it is a popular theory that despair at ever achieving wealth through traditional means (i.e. lack of faith in economic equality) fueled crypto investments. Theories about why crypto would be useful often focus around making housing affordable (through "the blockchain", somehow). Many people started using crypto as a smokescreen for gender and race equality to scam vulnerable people out of their money. 

At the heart of crypto is a belief that you can solve social problems with technological solutions. This is a common, but flawed belief. There is no shortage of problems to work on; instead of looking for a piece of software to solve it for us, we can work within our communities. We can ask what we are willing to do. And we can work with other people to achieve our goals. I don't expect it to be easy, but I do not expect to achieve anything in any other way. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

a monthly post

It was important to me to try and get back into a rhythm of writing. Since my kids were born (Hello, I have twin four year olds, a boy and a girl, they're happy and healthy thank you), I've been pressed to find time for my own hobbies. Before the kids were born, it was hard to find time to take away from the act of playing games (enjoyable, rewarding) and put time into the act of writing about playing videogames (rigorous (even if it doesn't read like I put rigor into it!), unrewarding, especially when decoupled from the instant gratification of likes and retweets on a pithy joke tweet). 

I was trying to do one blogpost a month without spending too much time writing about how I was trying to write one blogpost a month. It's hard! So out of some love for myself, I am going to ease up a little bit to technically achieve my goal even while I relax my standards. 

Here's what I've been doing:

Vampire Survivors: This game continues to add new content, so I pick it up every few months to see the new sights. I'm impressed with how the latest additions are not merely thrown into the list of characters or items which can be collected, but are introduced through some weird one-off mechanics which are not otherwise seen in the game. After the unusual introduction, the items become more normal, except they require a higher level of time management to assemble the requirements for proper usage of the items in the strictly limited 30 minutes of arena time. While the early rounds of Vampire Survivor are about pure survival, asking if can you last the full 30 minutes, the end game asks you to optimize every second of those 30 minutes to reach every corner of the map with the appropriate pre-requisite weapons to evolve the most powerful items. It's all optional, there are no high scores, and no leaderboards. But the rewards feel powerful, and worth the effort.

Atlanta: I'm struggling with Season 2 of this show. Every episode exudes this sense of dread. The season begins with a quick evocation of "Robbing season", the idea the time of year when people must steal to survive is upon us. The show is gorgeous to look at, but some episodes are actually just pure horror episodes with an occasional comic remark? 

Garbage Day: This newsletter is great, and subscribers get access to a discord where I have found new music, insulted cryptocurrency schemes, and learned more than I ever wanted to know about the Human Pet Guy. 

Silos: I like for keeping track of games I want to play and posting reviews of games I have played. I dislike the concept of silos, especially the idea that might one day disappear. People don't follow me on backlogged but they follow me on twitter. I don't want to use twitter anymore, I want to use my blog. So I am exploring how to hook up the tools I want to use (my blog, backlogged) to the tools other people are using (twitter) and connecting them all together. So far I got a quick IFTT going to post to twitter when I make a new review on backlogged. It looks nice! (It will also post to twitter when I make this blogpost. I don't know if that will look nice yet!) 

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?