I have spent the past month sick, my family has spent the past month sick, I am absolutely not getting a blogpost out this month.
Sunday, November 27, 2022
Saturday, October 29, 2022
Pandemic Games - Death Stranding and Xenoblade Chronicles 3
After I finished Xenoblade Chronicles 3, I picked up Death Stranding and was surprised that I went straight from one pandemic game into another. Both games are are about reconnecting splintered communities, although they approach the subject very differently.
Death Stranding came out November 2019, about a month before COVID-19 was identified. The timeline is a little ambiguous, but the deadly "Stranding" which left people... stranded... happened within living memory for many of the characters. Your job is not to fix the problem, but live within it by basically plugging a bunch of communities back into the internet. You very rarely see people face to face. They are buried deep in bunkers, and you will almost never be in the room with more than 1 person at the same time.
Xenoblade Chronicles 3 came out July 2022, almost three years into the pandemic. The inciting incident that sets the plot into the motion was so long ago it is forgotten to history and the "new normal" is an endless murderous battle royale grind that everyone believes to be either the only system available or the best system possible.
It's hard not to look at these two games and see shifting attitudes towards the pandemic in them. In Death Stranding, technology is hopeful. You are using it to "Make America Whole Again." In XBC, you are a Luddite smashing clocks as fast as you can. The Death Stranding is a little magical, a mystical connection with the afterlife, which is never fully explained and came out of nowhere. In Xenoblade, the world is a system intentionally set up to benefit the elite who literally feast upon our deaths. Most cynically, Death Stranding occasionally treats Sam as a gig worker sent into unbearably dangerous conditions. In Xenoblade, the danger of the world is just something everyone takes for granted. The level 50 dinosaur tromping around the level 12 area is unremarkable. Even playing Death Stranding in 2022, I barely picked up on the gig worker critique - of course we sacrifice people to do dangerous jobs for no pay. That's just life now. Hasn't it always been?
3 years of perspective doesn't only bring cynicism. In Xenoblade, you see communities change and grow. People leave their home colonies, visit other places, learn and come back home with new knowledge. They overcome distrust of each other and make new things together. In Death Stranding, one person does that. Once. The other times people leave are in a body bag. You spend almost the entire time by yourself. In Xenoblade, you travel with your friends. You are never alone. Maybe one thing we have learned in the past three years is that our governments won't care for us, but other people still might.
Friday, September 30, 2022
xenoblade chronicles 3 - endgame
After 130 hours, i have finally finished Xenoblade Chronicles 3. I'll talk about the ending below. I guess that's spoilers territory, but to be honest it's probably better knowing what the ending is before you experience it for yourself.
The endgame sets up a nice switch. In early to mid game, quests are primarily about your team earning the trust of newly freed colonies. By the end of the game, quests become about how the colonies, formerly on opposite ends of a war, now need to work with each other for survival and peace. You help them cooperate to grow food, share supplies, and collaborate on new technology in order to build a better world. It's a hopeful turn for the story to take. It really solidified this idea I had that this game is a perfect 2022-era game: a story about oppressive systems, enabled by techno-surveillance (through the Iris, a tool that ultimately reveals your location to the bad guys, and through the Collectopedia cards, questgiving mechanisms which are revealed to be initially invented to spy on enemy supply lines) pushing us to create a better world through mutual understanding and aid.
The ending tears all of that apart. As it turns out, when the two worlds (The worlds of Xenoblade 1 and Xenoblade 2, for some reason) "collided", they didn't permanently fuse together. Somehow, in a flash of understanding that every character suddenly gained while I was left completely in the dark(*), the worlds are going to just pass through each other as soon as I defeat the bad guy and Agnus and Keves are going to split back apart, and all the Keves people will magically phaseshift back into Xenoblade 1 and the Agnus people will phase shift back into Xenoblade 2? This poses a few problems.
First, all that mutual aid and cooperation was pointless. Every speck of matter from Agnus will disappear from Keves as well as vice versa, and memories will be lost. That's frustrating. I liked that part and really looked forward to, I don't know, a flash of magic energy where everyone's 10-year life limit was removed and the colonies continued to work side by side to build a better world together. Instead I got "I'll always remember you! I'll see you again!" (no you won't. when are these worlds going to collide again? what?).
Second, what happens to the people of The City? They're not from Keves *or* Agnus. If this world was created by the fusion of XBC1 and XBC2, where do the people who are explicitly the descendants of both groups mixing together go when the worlds split apart? The City is like one of the most pivotal groups in the plot!
I do think one of the more important themes of the game is "people should be free to follow their passions instead of having their lives dictated by natural ability or ruling structures". I think that's a powerful and even anti-fascist message about the importance of self-determination. Characters in The City are able to pursue artistic careers even though they're locked down in a state of hidden perma-war. Joran's is redeemed not because he was weak and became strong, but because he understood he was asked to be something he wasn't in a system that only valued strength and he had the option to choose another path. I'm not very interested in casting out XBC3 entirely because it had an ending that made no sense to me and didn't resonate with me. I played it for 130 hours and mostly just the last hour sucked. The developers here have a history of making games that reach for philosophical and metatextual heights and, in my opinion, they don't grasp what they aim for. And you know what? Fine. Good for them. I want them to keep reaching. I saw a lot of really interesting themes in the stories in this game. But to the experience of playing it...
What actually bothers me is after 4 games in the series, seeing the exact same mechanics play out on slightly different world maps is starting to wear a bit thin. I think one of the most iconic signatures of the series is "Level 90 monster hanging out in a starting area", to give you a sense that these aren't neatly divided sandboxes but messy and breathing ecologies. That's cool! This game has quests about "we need to respect the land so we can help each other grow as better carers for the land and for our neighbors" to bring that point home. Unfortunately you can immediately follow that up with "kill this rare creature 30 times for its parts, don't worry you can leave the map and come back to make it respawn". Ultimately, there's never going to be a sense of ecology here even as the game is reaching for it. Killing rare monsters for parts is at least a genre trope, but it's superficial to place that trope in the third game in a series known for its attempts at philosophy, have it pontificate about the richness of the earth, and all the animals stand next to each other staring straight ahead like a 2009 GameCube game as it replays the same "here's a level 10 creature and WOW here's a level 90 creature right next to it!!!" for the third map in a row and the fourth game in a row.
There's a little bit of this creature placement that does come from an MMO legacy, just like the battle system comes from an MMO legacy. But what really baffles me is that MMOs at this point have a pretty standard design language. MMOs have DPS meters to help you gauge build effectiveness (now present in almost every mobile RPG, totally absent from this game). MMO fights have red circles on the ground to avoid (barely gestured at in this game for 1-2 story boss battles and never seen again). There are raid mechanics where you need to target specific parts or hit things in a specific order or alternate between using all your DPS and avoiding a big attack. Even changing your party composition to meet a specific challenge. None of those things are present here. As much as the game wants to borrow from MMO design, it doesn't seem interested in engaging with MMOs as they exist today. Every fight, from bosses to the weakest creature, proceeds in exactly the same way. Optimizing builds is mostly a chore of scrolling through identical equipment and guessing at your damage output. Even trying to take on the game while underlevelled - a common request from my casual chats with people - is something that is locked behind new game + for unfathomable reasons.
Overall I think this game is doing interesting things, even if it falls over suddenly at the last minute and the combat is distinctly uninspired. I'd recommend it (and I would anti-recommend playing XBC1 and 2 first, as it's actually more confusing trying to understand why these characters are relevant and showing up and if they're going to do anything related to their games before flying off into the sunset/interdimensional vortex). It's the kind of game that really electrifies me: it has ambition and can't quite realize all of it. I gripe, but I find it really interesting to dig in to what works and what doesn't work.
(*) ACTUALLY, in the post-game, which occurs chronologically before the final fight, Mia explains exactly what is going to happen. Why it occurs in this order, I do not know, but it is very frustrating and annoying.
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 backlogged.com 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 backlogged.com 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!)