Saturday, June 29, 2024

seeing like a state machine

I've been into automation games lately. This is a style of game where instead of punching trees to get wood, you get robots to punch the trees for you. Typically the output of one automation goes into the input of another to make increasingly complex supply chains. The goal of the game is to balance your inputs and outputs for maximum efficiency while moving towards more sophisticated products. The key to these games tends to be monitoring your inputs and outputs, which makes interface elements like production charts incredibly important. When I picked up Nova Lands, a smaller-scale automation game, I was boggled when there were no production charts at all. 

Seeing Like A State is a book detailing failures of top-down administrative beueararacacraacy (Cards on the table - I will never learn how to spell this word). The book takes a few case studies of elements where The State, such as a king, wants to know how many ships they can create in order to judge their ability to go to war. In order to know how many ships can be built, the state must be able to tally the amount of lumber that can be produced. In order to know the amount of lumber that can be produced, they must know the square footage of their forests and how much lumber can be obtained per square foot of forest. However, forests are not homogenous. Forests can be dense or light, and their boundaries might be marked with scrub or they might have clearings. Wouldn't it be easier if we could simply chop down the messy, unmanaged forests and replace them with scientifically planted forests containing trees in neat rows, allowing the state precise measurements of square footage and yield per square foot, thus lumber yield, thus the number of ships that can be built, thus the wartime capacity of the state? 

Every management game puts you in the perspective of A State, in one way or another. In Civilization you literally embody the undying avatar of a civilization, in SimCity you are the omnipotent mayor, in Dwarf Fortress you are the unseen commander giving orders to make buildings and workshops. As The State, you must know the sum total of your capacity in order to make decisions - can I afford this new building? Can I overpower my foe in a war? Do I have enough stockpiles to survive the winter? Certainly it is possible to play all of these games poorly, to reject knowledge and therefore efficacy. Yet mastery pushes the player towards certain directions, most of all in the automation game. The automation game is most concerned with efficient inputs and outputs, making the most of your forests to supply your lumber yards to supply your shipwrights. Mostly this is achieved by skyrocketing costs later in the supply chain. For example, in Satisfactory, it's fairly easy to produce Copper Wire: 1 copper ore produces 1 copper ingot which produces 2 copper wire, 15 per minute. Efficiency does not matter much here. By the time you need to produce motors, you need 240 units of wire per minute. Inefficacy strains the limited number of copper mines, the highly constrained power supply, and the wait time for prerequisite production items to flow through the chain. Therefore, monitoring throughput and efficacy is an important part of playing Satisfactory. The game includes many, many elements to help you understand the throughput of your production line. 

Nova Lands has no charts or graphs to show throughput. The best you get is little stockpiles at your factories to show the surplus accumulation of inputs or outputs. You must jet your avatar across islands, eyeballing where things are piling up or where factories are idle. I rebelled furiously against this. This was a waste of my time! These facts could have been consumed neatly and presented in an organized fashion from a single interface! My avatar could be sitting with his feet up on his throne, perusing reports and dispatching orders to shore up productions! 

Scientific forestry failed in its first incarnations. Replacing the natural growth of forests, messy as they were, with neat lines of trees did not account for the web of life that relied on those interplays and helped maintain the health of the forest, as well as provide food for the people living on the outskirts. The lack of diverse stock meant a single disease could fell an entire grove. Seeing Like A State, through this example and others, shows how a top-down view often ignores these facts-on-the-ground. One solution the book arrives at is "local control". Who knows the relationship between the trees and the rest of the forest better than the beurarararacararat? The forester who works it. The person who is present, lives the relationships that already exist, and suffers the consequences of homogenization first. 

Real life is entangled, but digital life only has the functions we give it. Nova Land has no complex web of life sustaining it, or consequences for translating the entire land into bleak industrial output. It would be a mistake to simply conclude that charts are a tool of the state, and by removing them and forcing me to hop from island to island, Nova Land embodies the concept of "local control". The inputs and outputs here are still neat homogenous bricks, easy to count, every one ultimately interchangeable for the other. However, Nova Life is designed - it controls the menu, therefore it controls the choices. It does not have charts or graphs and as a result, my time was spent personally monitoring the inputs and outputs of each factory and island. By thinking about my avatar as investing time in the islands, I was able to reframe my interaction with Nova Land's interface from "This is missing something I am used to" towards "I am getting a new perspective by having this element taken away from me". I stopped thinking about what I wished it did differently, and started engaging with what it was doing for me. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

what was the AAA game


There is not a formal definition of "AAA game". You can not pin down a dollar value or team size that makes one game "AAA" and another not. The term itself shares a name with a credit rating of the most trustworthy, safest class of investing assets. That's all this is - a vibe saying "we're the safe pick". Equally prestigious or maligning, depending on your audience. AAA prestige or "more AAA trash". 

So what is this thing that has no definition but still draws such a stark boundary? Well, I've always been a sucker for robot dinosaurs. Let me take a recent release to PC and put on my calm observational New Critic hat, and explore the sensation of this game as it is. Let me load up Horizon: Zero Dawn: Uncharted West. No, damnit, that's not the name. Horizon: Forzabidden West. No! Ok, now I will put on my calm New Critic hat...


you have to start here. a save point-campfire is placed inside a cave and the sun slices across a wall, moving as the sun sets and dust dances in the beams.


everyone has unique voices and faces and mannerisms. places are packed with nooks and crannies to explore.


i still hit the wrong button about a quarter of the time. i fully ignore weapon skills because it's one button too many for me to keep track of. i'm thankful for my fancy controller which lets me remap stick clicks to back paddles. there's also so much to do, each in its own little loop . i get sunk in and when i start getting itchy i change the task im working on a bit, from exploration to item gathering to combat to questing to machine strike. there's so much here and i'm scratching the surface.


it makes me feel at peace, honestly. brain off, todo list on, check off the items one by one. job well done, maybe some room for improvement next time, maybe some better weapons or better armor or a higher level.


yes, it's detailed, and also, it's staged. characters look off to your right, or stop speaking and stand for an extra second. gathering herbs is the act of exaggeratedly rubbing your hands over a plant for one second. the whole thing is obviously ridiculous, and that's why i'm here. i'm here to hunt robot dinosaurs, not see a drama or do a naturalism. but sometimes the characters try to convey pathos for the sixth time after a robot t-rex smacks me with its tail or murders me with its hip-mounted rocket launchers and i reload and try again. the harder you try to smash the "do a drama" button on my robot dinosaur game the harder i am going to smash the


skip button. this guy is taking an awful long time to tell me his brother is lost in the mountains. oh it's for some ritual? cool, fine. skip. your brother is maimed and you're being stubborn? just tell me what i need to do for the quest. skip. there are characters i like and people i will listen to but boy is that skip button a relief. do we talk about the skip button enough? it's like an essential function in a videogame, to me. there's an entire way of playing games that involves skipping as much as possible to go as fast as possible. the skip button is a miracle. 

slightly overwhelming

the controls are complex and the world is big and now i've been playing for 30 hours and there's still so much to do and i don't want to skip anything because then i have a gap in my todo list and, as many arch tumblr posts have noted, what is a power fantasy if not merely completing the tasks I have given myself? 


part of the complexity is like, "ok, now here's the crate puzzle". and sometimes it is just "look for the highlighted area and use your tool on the highlight and pull the crate over. you did it! you solved the puzzle! great job, here's a treat". but sometimes it's more opaque and i get stuck while the character mutters "gotta use my focus" over and over in my ear and it's been ten minutes and i open up a walkthrough on my phone to see that i've been looking in the totally wrong place and doing things out of order and didn't realize that this particular rock was destructible. for all the talk about yellow paint (plenty present here!) i still get turned around and lost and baffled by,... crate puzzles? i just can't figure out the new rules to each of these unique things and i mash the wrong pieces together like an infant. also like an infant, i cry when it doesn't work. fyi.


not in the sense of the world, which has so many things i take occasional week-long breaks due to feeling overwhelmed, but in the sense of like... ok this area has a "mercury poisoning in the lake" subplot in text logs from 3,000 years ago or whatever and it doesn't matter at all. alloy mutters "the water feels thick... polluted?" when you get in once and nothing else. you can find the logs from environmentalists saying "hey you're polluting" and some more logs saying "we love polluting so we can put mercury in vaccines" from CEOs and i don't know, man. this doesn't awaken my curiosity or enrich the world at all. it just feels like Environmental Storytelling (derogatory), obligatory stuff put in to keep me busy and to add collectibles to the screen. there's no charge and no spark, just a rote flipping through of a book of clichés. which is like, fine, but also there's sixteen paragraphs about each one when it's a cliché, you need two sentences to evoke it and then I hit the skip button anyway. and its not like i miss anything. functionally, narratively, you swoop into a community, do two quests per community to Enrich The Community, you're out. todo list item complete! 

does this society work? does alloy have the right to charge into these people's lives? in a sense, who cares, this is a game about robot dinosaurs. but in another sense, the robots are there because of climate change, and these are people living in a post-climate-apocalypse, does the game care about that at all? I don't think so. It has nothing to say to us, in the present about it, except that it might be bad if we let robots destroy the planet. It's not particularly passionate about Alloy's role as interloper. It just wants to make her look badass (which i do appreciate). but it seems like the game thinks it should care about these things so it throws in some scraps of text once in a while about it. it's very funny that this game is getting translated to a Lego game because it will fit in with the also-Legofied empty politics of a Star Wars movie or a Marvel movie absolutely perfectly, despite the sometimes-apparent ambitions towards weightier goals which mostly get expressed as "Billionaires..... are bad.... maybe?". 

this is all leaving aside the red-hot topic of "what on earth is going on with the depictions of race and face paint and noble savage tropes in this game", a topic that frankly deserves a special task force with subpoena powers. im sure there are weird internal emails about this and we all deserve to know about them. 

not flawless

i think there's some desire to cast AAA games as spectacles of untouchable polish whose might cannot be matched by the poor beleaguered indies, but that's not quite true. there's clunk all over, from the interfaces that I just can not get the hang of, to occasional weird animations that are trying to blend together but can't quite stitch it. if all you value is like photo-realistic graphical fidelity, sure? but that's not the total of what I value at all. i happen to like menus which provide relevant information about the thing i am looking at, a bar this game fails to clear on multiple occasions in favor of providing pretty pictures in the menu screen instead.

piled on artifice

i am delighted by the stilted cadence of NPCs. i love the faux-casual dispersal of information like a nervous improv actor trying to work the audience suggestion in. it's like the dramatic reveal before the cut to a commercial break in a TV show (when we had commercial breaks), or an over-emphasized movement on stage for people sitting in the back rows. It's just part of the form, now. It is what it is. great job getting the words "energy surge" out , combat tutorial voice actor. that was an inhuman thing to say, but this is a video game, so it's in its proper place. "Come to study our ways, outlander"? what a delightfully bizarre thing to pretend is normal human interaction, blurb writer! I love it. I'm going to greet my kids with that when they get home from school. You're a treasure.

ok thats everything a AAA game is time for a conclusion

Is this list of qualities damning? To be honest, I don't know. I'm pretty sure I enjoyed myself playing the thing but now I'm questioning myself. Is it slop? I also don't know. I played this stuff for like 90 hours. At some point it became The Thing I Was Playing, which represented a decision I didn't have to actively make about my free time because I could just turn to The Thing I Am Playing. Was every moment of triumph an act of dramatic tension being resolved? Like... Probably, but also, is that why I am playing games? 

I'm against slop. Mark me down as disliking things that have nasty-sounding names. And also, I do a lot of stuff that is mindless and aimless and kills time to get me through the day (I enjoy idle games and incremental games!), so maybe I am slightly pro-slop. I feel enough pressure to be like, a full and complete human being, I'm not gonna monitor my gaming consumption to be sufficiently slopless. I think the experience I had most fully with Horizon 2 was just, "this is some goofy stuff and I love it". That's what I get out of this game with a name I can never type with a straight face, a place to be goofy and bunny-hop up hills to avoid physics sliding me down the rocks. Can games be more than goofy? Sure, of course. Are they morally obligated to be more than that? Of course not. It's neat when it happens. It can be magical. And, robot dinosaurs with lovingly detailed glowing red weak spots aren't going to show up many other places. 

Thursday, September 21, 2023

A lesson was learned but the damage was irreversible 

Retrieved Sept 20 2023, publish date unclear 

The Vast Majority of NFTs are Worthless 

Of the 73,257 NFT collections we identified, an eye-watering 69,795 of them have a market cap of 0 Ether (ETH). 

79% of all NFT collections – otherwise known as almost 4 out of every 5 – have remained unsold. 

March 28,2022 

So, my current "I have a half hour to kill" game of choice is Storybook Brawl. It's a free-to-play auto battler with an aesthetic very reminiscent of Hearthstone. [...]. It's not revolutionary, but it's fun. 

In terms of monetization, it's truly free to play.[…] It's been fun. I've seen video streams with the devs talking game balance, updates, and strategy. They seem fun and engaging. 

The company making the game has been bought out by a crypto exchange, with a grand goal of NFT-ing the game. Somehow. It's not clear, even in terms of handling asset rights what is supposed to happen. There's nothing to transfer between players or games, and art NFTs NFTs. 

The game, which had been wildly popular and highly rated, is currently being review-bombed into oblivion on Steam, and I'm likely to uninstall unless something happens to reverse course. Dammit, I liked that one. 

Steam review graph for Storybook Brawl, showing positive/negative reviews over time. 

Aug 4, 2022 

Sooo I used to play casually and returned to the game recently. I had no idea the game was acquired by a crypto company until I read a comment on reddit. What are the implications? What has changed with SBB? Pardon my ignorance but is the game some kind of crypto miner malware now lol? Is it becoming one of those play to earn scam games? 


There was talk about incorporating NFTs to the game since the FTX acquisition but no word about how yet, or whether it'll even work. For the time being, there have been no changes. 


[…] There is nothing in the short term planned for this 


Something might happen someday related to crypto or NFTs connected to something about the game. Maybe. Someday. With something. 

The liquidation of FTX, a Bahamas-based cryptocurrency exchange, began in November 2022 

May 1, 2023 

Game is broken as of today: says 9.999.9 update is available 

The game says that version 9.99.9 is up and should close the game and update. There's no update, even reinstall didn't help 

User “Ash” 

Game is dead as of yesterday. Literally, not hyperbolic. They've shut the servers off. 

User “Netwolfe” 

[…]Link to the article I am referencing 

The game’s shutdown announcement was met with sadness and disbelief, as it was noted that the game was Sam Bankman-Fried’s favorite NFT card-battling game. The association with the notorious CEO may have played a role in the game’s steadily declining fanbase, resulting in a drop of 59% in the average player count from 817 average players in February 2022 to about 331 average players in the past month. 


From Blockzeit: 

Final Thoughts 

The shutdown of Storybook Brawl serves as a stark reminder of the risks associated with building on a centralized platform. With the growing popularity of NFT games, it is essential to choose reliable platforms that can provide stability and security for both players and developers. The NFT gaming industry will undoubtedly continue to evolve, and it is up to developers and players alike to ensure its long-term success. 

From the Steam discussion thread: 

User "Sven Viking" 

The article calls it a Web3 NFT game, but as far as I saw the released version had nothing to do with either[...] 

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Terraforming Mars

Colonizing mars is a fantasy. It's an ideological project being driven by people who want a last-ditch effort to save humanity from extinction because they think earth is doomed. That's important context for the recent swell of "terraforming (and colonizing) mars" games. 

These games run the gamut from highly scientific to mostly abstract. They can acknowledge ideology and nationality or they can obscure it. They all take, without a single question, the premise that Mars must be terraformed.  Even the most scientific game, Per Aspera, handwaves away the problem of Mars' distance with a handy ultra-fast space travel technology and plenty of made-up terraforming technology. In other games, such as Terraformers, or Terraforming Mars, terraforming is the only path to victory and no other reasonable option exists. Yes, it's literally the name of the game - can we come back to this after a brief survey of these games?

Farlanders puts a person-centric face on its puzzley-terraforming scenes. There's a story that's primarily about training new terraforming techs, and the mechanics are about using your limited terraforming tetris pieces to make room for your level objectives as you chat with your friends. Apparently the story does eventually question the politics of terraforming as you go on, but frankly I didn't get that far because it's a quite challenging game!

Terraformers is more of a traditional city/civilization-builder where you choose a leader and establish colonies, set up mines, and aggressively chase after establishing new plant life to make your human population happy so you can expand so you can repeat the cycle. You can use bots to increase your reach across the planet's surface but it makes it harder to reach the victory condition, which is determined by human happiness. There's a race against the clock to achieve victory before your humans demand too much of you, get upset and leave.  

Per Aspera has you inhabit an intelligent AI. Humans are a minor resource used to obtain research for new techs. This game is the most deliberate about the process of terraforming, which is presented as a series of painstaking stages undertaken one step at a time. Raise the temperature, then harvest the water, then start seeding lichen to increase moisture levels, then finally start pushing plant life across the entire planet's surface. All the work is done by a network of autonomous drones, conveyed across the planet by Hyperloops. The AI muses about how humans destroyed the Earth and Mars is a second chance for humanity. There's a story beat where an antagonist questions terraforming Mars but the antagonist is written as an irrational extremist. Although I enjoyed the process of terraforming most in this game, it was one of the most unquestioning games about ideology despite the premise of a naive AI coming into consciousness.

Surviving Mars has a fog of war around its mechanics. Choices are a shot in the dark whose effects you will not encounter for hours. It is full of backpack problems: given $10m, how full will you stuff this rocket, and using which supplies? Surrounded by no strategic direction except your pre-existing knowledge. "What if I don't have any pre-existing knowledge?" You can consult one of three guides, which all have contradicting information and are written with incomplete or outdated information and terminology. The most useful guide I found says "Do not aim to be self-sufficient. Aim instead to be profitable.": This is all a capitalistic enterprise about reclaiming your cash. There's a faction selection screen, which at least gestures at recognizing ideology and motivation! That's a small relief, at least. 

Finally, there is Terraforming Mars, a board game which mostly takes us back to an abstract puzzle. There are corporation personas which veer between "environmental corporate" (get more plant life because you own a proporietary strain of plant life biohacked for adaptability) and "extremely corporate" (get more money every time you play an event because you are livestreaming this for cash). You are in more explicit competition with your rivals, and you can sabotage them and steal their resources as you compete for victory points, but terraforming mars is the name of the game. 

Is it fair to lean on these games for wanting to terraform mars? The prospect of terraforming Mars is an ideological project, and a fantasy. The premise is not value-neutral because the people pushing the premise are billionaires who believe we need to leave earth and own space companies to further that goal: Surviving Mars has a faction called "SpaceY", a reference to Musk's SpaceX. Mars is a blank slate, Terra Nullus, a playground for us to do what we want. What would it even look like to consider the issue of terraforming planets for human habitation from a different angle?

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri also posits a ruined Earth, fleeing ideologues, and the colonization of a distant planet directed by you as the embodiment of one of those ideologues. However, Alpha Centauri's planet Chiron is not a blank slate. The ideologues are not silent and blank slates for you to form. Chiron is alive in the most literal representation of Gaia theory, and the ideologues are fated to conflict about how this must be handled. You can terraform Chiron in SMAC if you wish, but the native life has something to say about it -- and so will Deidre, the head of the Gaiaist faction. You can also live in harmony with the planet, and that has some tradeoffs as well. This is all in contrast to Mars, despite the similar "doomed people and differing ideologies" setup. Mars is devoid of life and must be transformed; Chiron is alive and you need to actively choose if you want to support that life or replace it. Mars is a blank slate upon which new ideology can be seamlessly imported; Chiron is a new battleground for existing ideology. Above all, Mars is "real", and gets treated with pseudo-scientific rigor; Chiron is outside the realm of possibility and not to be taken seriously.

SMAC was released in 1999. What happens when we look to a more recent game for a different view on terraforming? Terra Nil is a terraforming game about reclaiming wastelands. It looks like a game about fixing human damage to human ecosystems, with levels about reclaiming skyscrapers and turning them into bamboo forests. In practice, it is another abstract puzzle game with fake technology and an unreal setting. Humans are mysteriously absent from the world. Ecosystems don't exist as a delicate balance between parameters as they do in Per Aspera's terraforming. The purpose of Terra Nil is to paint as much green as you can using as little resources as possible, and that sometimes means blasting the land to pieces and erupting magma streams out. If you tweak parameters enough, you can solve a small puzzle to make animals magically appear. Wasteland restored! It's not a serious consideration of terraforming, it's a puzzle game about lining up shapes efficiently. Furthermore, the title has an unmistakable connection to the doctrine of "Terra Nullus", the legal principle that considered land vacant "if it had not yet been occupied by Christians. Such vacant lands could be defined as 'discovered' and as a result sovereignty, title and jurisdiction could be claimed" ( This principle was used in Canada, Australia, and the Americas, none of which were "vacant". Assuming the best intention this is an unwitting reference and sign of complete thoughtlessness; assuming the worst, a clear sign that even cheerful environmentalism is a new form of colonialism.

Ideology is not a dial that gets turned during the production process while developers look back at the audience like a contestant on the price is right. The construction of a video game has many considerations, and things may be removed or added for reasons as mundane as "this is too hard to localize" or "We ran out of time". "We didn't think of that" is another reason, though, and that's where ideology comes into play. I'm not sure the developers of these games currently conceive of Mars as anything other than a playground for our technology. We don't see Mars as a beautiful planet in its own right. We don't see Mars as something that has existed alongside our planet for longer than life has existed. We don't see Mars as worthy of preserving. Red Mars, the book that is the blueprint for a lot of this generation of terraforming talk just as Snow Crash and Ready Player One is the blueprint for lots of the Metaverse talk, was very careful to establish Mars preservationists as a faction who were relatively sympathetic. The way we think of Mars today is as a replacement Earth. It's worth asking why we think we can handle that when we are having trouble with our current Earth as it is. 

Sunday, November 27, 2022


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.

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.