One More Continue a tiny videogame blog Sun, 15 Oct 2017 09:53:37 +0000 en-US hourly 1 One More Continue 32 32 Blues and Bullets: Review of a Dead Game Sun, 15 Oct 2017 09:53:37 +0000 Episodic games always come with the chance of never getting to the end of the game. I tend to avoid them at all costs, choosing to purchase only after the entire season has been released. However, when Blues and Bullets came along, it looked exactly like the kind of game I would enjoy so I […]

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Episodic games always come with the chance of never getting to the end of the game. I tend to avoid them at all costs, choosing to purchase only after the entire season has been released. However, when Blues and Bullets came along, it looked exactly like the kind of game I would enjoy so I went in early and purchased both episodes when they were released. I haven’t seen a game do Noir this good. It takes all the tropes and jams them into a story with kidnappings and grotesque cults in an alternate reality 1930’s United States. The Volstead Act is still in effect, so prohibition is in full swing and Capone was never caught.

You play as Elliot Ness, former hard-boiled detective turned pie baker in his diner. Life is pretty good, despite being alone and having your police career end after an insidious case of missing children. You spend your days serving burgers and getting shit from your old police buddies until a messenger from Al Capone, your old arch-nemesis, arrives to summon you. The old criminal needs your help to track down his kidnapped daughter, and you reluctantly agree to do it for her. Ness’s guilt of his past case failing fuels the fire he brings to investigating this new case, and Capone’s daughter is just one of many children that have gone missing.

Are they connected? Probably, but it doesn’t matter.

The game is a series of scenes where you either explore and talk to people a la Life is Strange/Telltale games or investigate crime scenes. This latter part is probably the best, where you look for clues and then have to piece them together to deduce what happened. The challenge is more so in finding the clues than putting it together but it is done in a way which proves satisfying. The clues are presented as photos and you need to attach the correct photos to the bulletin board much like the standard web created in procedural police serials.

There are also some shooting bits, but these get boring fast. They are no more than hiding behind cover and shooting like laser gun arcade games and don’t serve much of a purpose besides adding some violence to an already gruesome tale. It also did not make any sense within in the narrative. Brutal murders and occult dismemberment is fine, but having Ness gun down 15 of Capone’s men and then spare him made the bodies meaningless in a game which everything should be meaningful.

It is noir as hell and draws heavily from the genre, but it still finds ways to include humour and one instance in particular, a bit of refreshing but completely unexpected slapstick. The choices you make have an affect more so on future conversations and how characters react to you than how the story unfolds (as far as I could tell anyway) and give the player the power to determine what kind of person Ness is.

We know he is tormented by his past and has a reliance on alcohol (which is illegal and Ness is somewhat a crusader against it, in public anyway) but how does he act in the situations he is in? We can play Ness as a person bent on revenge at all costs, a person who hides his flaws through poor jokes, or maybe we want Ness to be pragmatic and honest. Whatever you choose, the characters you interact with respond accordingly. This isn’t some false choice where whatever you choose results in the same response.

Early on in a scene in the diner, one of your former co-workers is hassling you about his burger taking too long. From the manner this guy talks you can tell he is an asshole. He asks Ness to go easy on the chilli sauce and as you prepare the burger, the game prompts you to ask if you want to add some sauce to the burger. And then some more. Maybe there should be some more? Depending on how much chilli you add the police officer’s response to your burger is going to be different.

It is kind of funny but it can also be sad. As the police officer leaves, whether you spiced his burger or not, Ness can respond in different ways. The game does not tell you what Ness will say, but instead will give you an adjective – friendly, angry, reserved? – the game asks. Play it angry, and it looks like these two have some bad blood between them, maybe they have never liked each other, or maybe something happened between them. Respond friendly, and these two are awkward colleagues who tease each other.

The dialogue system defined the way the relationship was between Ness and the police officer and you can interpret it as much as you want. I really liked this because it didn’t stress me out that I would choose the “bad” option or have to go through all of the options to get the information I needed.

It takes the Telltale formula and throws a lot of stuff in it – elaborate sets, investigations, shoot-outs. The content of the game is almost as diverse as the story and setting. It sometimes feels too much, and this might have had a hand in the game’s ultimate demise.

The setting was intriguing and I broke my rule of staying away and I was rewarded with a very good, sometimes awkward, and stylish as hell narrative game. I also rewarded myself with a game that will never be finished. Although there was never an official statement saying that the studio closed down, Internet sleuthing revealed that the company was slowly losing its key staff. Now, it’s been a over a year (Episode 2 was released in March 2016) and A Crowd of Monster’s website no longer exists.

No one knows what really happened but it’s easy to speculate that the studio’s plan was to use sales from each episode to fund the next – a risky business move considering the new IP and relatively unknown status of the developer, which was further complicated by porting the first episode to consoles as soon as possible. This not only drew resources away from completing the other chapters, but it delayed the release of chapter two. There was a year between the first and second episode as well, which is a lot of time for fans to maintain interest.

A Crowd of Monsters did a few unusual, if not controversial, things with Blues and Bullets. The first was to offer a season pass. Customers who got the pass paid a higher price up front but would get access to all future episodes. Coming from a brand new indie studio working with an original IP, it’s a bold ask. It might be cynical, but maybe they knew they would run out of money even if the first episode did modestly well.

Another red flag came when they were initially offering the second episode only with a season pass, effectively making people who only bought the first episode to buy the second episode at a much greater price than the first. This was later taken back and changed by the studio with an added discount. It didn’t look good and the “sorry!” discount probably hurt a lot more than it helped. At that stage, they weren’t trying to incentivize people on the fence to get the game but rather convince people who were already fans that they had insulted to feel better and buy.

I understand the benefits of episodic released from both a developer and a consumer stand-point. Developers get to stagger their release schedule and recover some costs up front which should allow them to lock in resources for the rest of the episodes. Consumers get to experience the game at a set pace which helps keep “the conversation” manageable for those who do not have much free time to play and the costs associated with the game are lower and more spread out which make it more manageable for some.

Blues and Bullets failed to make the most of both of these advantages.

First off, I believe that A Crowd of Monsters was hurting for resources early on and needed to desperately show some returns for the studio and its investors. It is clear that they were going for a highly polished game but for whatever reason they implemented pricing practices that were dubious at best. The thing with episodic games is that you have to be pretty sure you can get it done one way or another before you start releasing the episodes.

Telltale games and DONTNOD are both successful from the episodic format so we know it works. Even a small indie game like Dreamfall is getting complete (if it isn’t already) and so is Kentucky Route Zero, even if time between episodes is incredibly long. The point is that these developers most likely planned on being able to complete most of their game in time whether it did well or not.  An episodic business model is not sustainable if you can’t foresee delivering on the majority of the episodes from the beginning.

Secondly, the time between episodes helps build hype and anticipation. We saw this during the release of Life is Strange’s episodes and the conversations that happened on Twitter and Reddit. We see this in TV, in Game of Thrones, where time between each episode is used to build interest and anticipation from the fans discussing their theories and speculating about what might happen next week. The suspense between episodes prevents the game (or TV show) from ever completely leaving the minds of its fans. However, with a year between the two episodes, there was plenty of time for Blues and Bullets to become a mere memory.  The core story of Blues and Bullets doesn’t lend itself to the nail-biting suspense either.

There was no real cliffhanger at the end of the first episode. It was mostly an introduction and it did it’s job very well but the episode ends on a character – most likely Capone’s daughter – surviving in the dungeon she is being kept in. The central mystery of the game is to find out what happened to her and who took her prisoner. The problem is we know the payoff will come later and what was needed was a cliffhanger about the characters we got to know and care about. Otherwise we don’t have anything to talk about between episodes.

And there’s a lot of messed up stuff in Blues and Bullets – body mutilation, cultists wearing the skulls of what look like deer, zombie bodyguards, and a Russian Nuclear submarine. Even though each episode ended on an attempted cliffhanger, there was nothing to really talk about. The Russian guy is a small bad guy and the deer cultists are the real big bad guys. The game doesn’t give us a lot to speculate about. Compared to Life is Strange, Blues and Bullets feels hollow because it is based so much on noir tropes that we already “know” the characters. We are here for the setting and craziness. Life is Strange takes place in a relatively boring place but the characters are unique and relatable in a way that Blues and Bullets’s characters probably will never be. And that is not an inherently bad thing – two different games and all that – but its also a lost opportunity.

I like the characters in Blues and Bullets but I also know that they are mostly cardboard set pieces to move around. Even Elliot Ness, the heart and soul of the game, follows familiar tropes of noir detectives we have seen time and time again since Philip Marlowe.

Looking around the Internet I see a small but dedicated fan following that has been almost erased by the lack of communication from the now non-existent studio. I stumbled across it on Steam and vaguely remembered someone on a podcast talking briefly about it. I believe it could have survived if more people had heard of it but it is a moot point now. I really wish I could see the end of Blues and Bullets. Maybe five episodes is what was needed to work on the not so great parts of the game. The ending of Chapter Two definitely had some great potential.




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No Pineapple Left Behind: My Own Experience in Cultivating Pineapples Sat, 12 Aug 2017 18:38:51 +0000 “I think you should look into another profession. Either way, I hope you stay in touch. I like to keep in touch with all my trainees even if I don’t think they are suitable for the job” That was the closing statement by my overseer on my last day of student teaching. My teacher-tutor, who […]

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“I think you should look into another profession. Either way, I hope you stay in touch. I like to keep in touch with all my trainees even if I don’t think they are suitable for the job”

That was the closing statement by my overseer on my last day of student teaching. My teacher-tutor, who coincidentally was also my high school history teacher, was no where to be found. No doubt he was drinking coffee in the teacher’s lounge, paying as much attention to this moment as he did to my time in front of my class. This was the fourth and last time I would meet the supervisor from my University. We shook hands, and I never contacted her again.

The few emails I would send to my teacher-tutor went unanswered.

Regardless, I received my teaching certificate but I didn’t really have the patience to become a substitute teacher so shortly thereafter I returned to Europe to teach English as a second language. I knew I wanted to teach, but I wanted to explore my own ability in teaching without the constraints of treating students like pineapples.

I can admit when I do something wrong or make a mistake, usually anyway. This last exchange baffled me though. I had done some faux pas during my tenure as a student teacher, but the majority of feedback from my students and the vice principal was favorable. I taught a class of 14-year-old students to think critically about American History and was mostly successful but I don’t think this is what was required.

Even though my life in the US public school system was short (but not nasty or brutish), it left a bad taste in my mouth. The room for improvement I saw while a student became even more clear when the curtain was pulled back. I learned some things about teaching though, and I am grateful for the experience. The students and some of the faculty was great, but the ones in charge of my progress let me down.

No Pineapple Left Behind, a game which is a scathing critique of the US school system and in particular the No Child Left Behind Act, was something I looked forward to try because I wanted to see if my experience was reflected in it. In short, it is a management game about running a school and trying to turn children into pineapples by removing their humanity. Humanity is removed by continually doing rote tasks and memorization and protecting the children from any outside stimuli that might flavour their life, including making friendships. Once they lose their humanity, they turn into pineapples which don’t do anything except study and try to pass tests. Nothing else matter for these pineapples; they lose all human traits and their names become a string of numbers.

There is a little bit of the fantastical in the game. Teachers don’t teach lessons, but cast spells. School buses are teleported around the city, and to influence students, teachers can zap them. The difficult part is the management of money. Your success is dependent on the scores of daily tests. The better grades your students get, the more money your school has. However, if your students do not succeed, your school gets no money. On top of that, teachers have energy and the better spells for teaching cost more energy. By the end of the day, your teachers barely have enough energy to do anything but turn on the television.

No Pineapple Left Behind’s days are full of hiring and firing staff (to save money and replenish energy), dealing with complaints from parent phone calls, and making sure you meet the goals for the scenario (sandbox mode also available.) all the while trying not to run out of money. It quickly becomes tedious as newer, harder scenarios force you to become more granular. Pause, adjust, start, pause adjust, start. Much like teaching to the same curriculum over and over, it becomes a slog. Maybe that is the point, but I feel the game could have fared better with some additional polish and depth.

I wanted to play it because Seth Alter, the creator, used to be a teacher who stopped teaching because he no longer liked what we was doing.

“My special education class was on the same curriculum as everyone else with the same expectations and resources–my question was, what ultimately distinguished it as special education? Eventually, the answer resolved itself; the special education room was a stats tool. If the average grade of the school is per class, grouping all of the struggling students together boosts the average; it served no further function. This is where the dichotomy of pineapple and child ultimately originates.”


Maybe he knew a little about how I felt about my short experience in the education system. From his interviews, he saw that the administration treated its students as statistics to be manipulated to get funding. In the game, this is demonstrated by turning children into pineapples, in my experience, its guidance counselors encouraging my friends to drop out of school. The pineapples are diligent students, who lap up what you feed them and because your job depends on how well your students do on a standardized test, you teach to the test. Memorizer spell anyone?

Of course, this means the students lose any practical application of their skills. They might be confronted with a problem they could solve in a context they do not understand.

When I was student teaching, I was put in charge of the hybrid Social Studies – English class at the school. As a dual citizen and someone who spent significant time of my development in two countries, matters of national identity was important to me because I didn’t feel like I fit in anywhere. In my university studies, I was fascinated by the notion of American Exceptionalism and just how bad it was as a lens to look at the country’s history.

In my class, I decided to introduce the concepts of American Exceptionalism early to give some structure for the entire course. We would not only go through the necessary materials, but as a class, we would scrutinize the historical events and context and see just how closely the history of the country followed the ideas of freedom, liberty, and all that good stuff. This was probably not what the other teachers wanted to see.

I started student teaching right after No Child Left Behind was passed. My approach attempted to add a layer of critical thinking on top of history that I felt was sorely lacking having been through the curriculum as a student myself. I did not want pineapples in my class, and a lot of the material I was covering was not beneficial for standardized testing (even though History is not one of the important subjects according to NCLB.) In retrospect, I think I came to feel the same as Seth Alter did, but at the time it was just a feeling and I couldn’t quite formulate it in my mind. I was too busy with school, with my job, and with student teaching to do anything but go forward as best as I could.

In the end, I don’t think I learned anything from No Pineapple Left Behind because I had seen it before. What I did get was affirmation that I wasn’t alone in that moment in front of the school when my supervisor told me to get another job. Then, I was hurt and confused, and more than a little angry. I felt that the whole experience had been unfair, that I hadn’t gotten the support and guidance that I had needed, and that I had been trying to do something different but important that had been ignored. I don’t know if I was good at what I was doing then or if it got the students to think critically about history at all, or if it was a waste of time.

My tutor-teacher spent most of the time not in my class while I was teaching and I was left to fend for myself.

What I do know, is that I did not want pineapples in a system that increasingly wanted them.

I only got through about half the game before I decided to stop playing. I know there were some features and mechanics that I didn’t see. Sorry, No Pineapple Left Behind, but it got too much and too dull. If I had stayed in the US education system and made an attempt to make it work for me, I would have eventually felt the same, until I got sacked right before I got tenure to save the school some money.

Hmm. Maybe Seth Alter and No Pineapple Left Behind taught me something after all.

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A Mind Forever Voyaging: The Original Political Game Sun, 23 Jul 2017 22:59:04 +0000 In 1985, Infocom released a groundbreaking game written by Steve Meretzky that no one has tried to re-invent or iterate on since. Not only did it put its political message front and center, it also created an open world so ambitious that it might be impossible to create outside of a text parser. That game […]

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In 1985, Infocom released a groundbreaking game written by Steve Meretzky that no one has tried to re-invent or iterate on since. Not only did it put its political message front and center, it also created an open world so ambitious that it might be impossible to create outside of a text parser. That game is A Mind Forever Voyaging and to this day it is unparalleled in many ways.

In the game. you are Perry Sim, a normal guy who has had a tumultuous childhood but whose life has finally stabilized a bit. Then, you are suddenly pulled out of your life and find out that you are a computer and the life you have had up to this point was just a simulation. You were built for the purpose of simulating the near future and your first test run is to see how some new political policies will affect the country. These new policies are being introduced by a right-wing populist politician by the name of Richard Ryder, a stand-in for Ronald Reagan, whose policies Meretzky was directly challenging with the game. Ryder wants to pass what he calls the Plan for Renewed National Purpose, which in short wants to achieve the following:

* cut tax rates by fifty percent
* vigorous prosecution of tax evasion
* decentralization of federal responsibilities
* deregulation of all major industries
* reinstatement of the military draft
* emphasis on fundamentals and traditional values in education
* mandatory conscription for troublemakers and criminals
* a strict “USNA First” trade policy
* termination of aid to nations not pro-USNA
* cutbacks on all types of bureaucracy, e.g. registering cars, guns
* termination of government subsidies to outmoded industries

These policies, which don’t look out of place in modern day, are entered into the computer and the simulation is run for a decade. Then, as Perry Sim, you are able to explore Rockvil and your under these new policies.

Your first mission is to record some daily interactions which will be used by the government to evaluate and, if favorable, implement these new policies. Ten years into the future life seems pretty good. You can explore the whole city – a physical map was included with the game – and check out the landmarks. There is the power station, the mall, the sports arena. There are multiple residential structures and busy streets. Although it is presented in text, the city is vast, life buzzes past you and it feels real. Even the short and perfunctory descriptions of certain locations, probably due to memory space limitations and time, help the player feel at home. How much do you really have to say about the roads you take every day to and from work?

You can even check in with your simulated family. Your wife Jill is at home painting and your baby son is sleeping in his crib. Life seems pretty good and you return to the real world with your recorded screens. The politicians are happy with your work and start the process of implementing their policies.

The computer, however, continues to simulate and soon you can do twenty years into the future. Then thirty. Then forty.

Each decade, life in Rockvil gets worse.

Armed guards start patrolling the streets, the population becomes increasingly poor. Around the malls, you notice “suicide booths” being set up. They are like telephone booths, but instead of phone calls, they dispose of people who no longer have the will to live. In a peaceful and sanitary way of course. Visiting your family becomes brutal. Random apartment searches turn your living space upside down and stress your family. Eventually, family life breaks down as your son joins a political/religious cult and comes home to accuse Jill of being an non-believer and poisoner of minds.

“She is the one.” The voice is Mitchell’s, but the tone is cold, unrecognizable, sending shivers through you. “She spake against the Church; she tried to poison the mind of a child too young to know the Truth.” The thugs grab Jill, who reaches toward Mitchell, tears of terror streaming down her face. Totally unresponsive, he turns and walks calmly out of the apartment.

As Jill is dragged, screaming and crying, through the front door, you try to follow, but a cop pummels you in the stomach with his club. You fall to the floor, retching, as the apartment door slams closed, shutting you off forever from the son you cannot understand and the wife you will never see again.

The final decade limits the once sprawling map to a few locations as you are now homeless and no matter what you do, you get eaten by wild dogs or mutants.

Since these are simulations, you can leave and jump in at any time, but each time you enter it starts from the beginning, allowing you to “relive” these memories. When I first played the game, I tried countless times to find a solution. To stop the guards from taking away my son, to find shelter and protection from the wild dogs. No matter what I did, the situation always turned out badly. There was nothing I could do to make a difference inside the simulation but it was clear that these policies had to go.

The first amazing part of A Mind Forever Voyaging was the world of Rockvil. By Infocom text-adventure standards, the map was huge. A whole city replicated multiple times (once for each decade) and each decade gives different descriptions for a lot of the locations. The player had to notice changes from one decade to the next so most things could ever be exactly the same. In one way, AMFV reminds me of the TV show The Wire. While The Wire is about police and drug dealers and corrupt politicians, as a whole it is about the city of Baltimore. I feel the same about AMFV that despite its political criticism and story about Perry Sim, it is about the city of Rockvil – which sounds strange because even within the game, Rockvil is not a real place. However, it is incredibly hard to play through the city over and over again through time and not get attached to it in some way. When I playing the game for the first time I was a less than ten years old. Seeing the city slowly descend into chaos and ultimately into ruin profoundly affected me. A Mind Forever Voyaging is one of the few games I have ever felt deeply saddened by.

The state of the city and it’s citizens is also the core of the political message of the game. It is what tells you that things are going to shit.

Today, open political critique rarely makes its way into big budget games (and Infocom was a big budget equivalent back then) in such a sharp way. AAA studios rarely want to go all-in on politics,

which is understandable to a certain extent, and while games like Mafia 3 and Watch_Dogs 2 made progress in talking about the politics of race, usually any message is fumbled or simplified to either not get in the way of the game’s systems or to not offend. Remember how Deus Ex:Mankind Divided tries to tackle race but does so extremely clumsily by incorporating real life movements and slogans. The thought is there at least, I guess. The Bioshock series tries to critique a sort of Randian utopia but in the end the thing you remember the most is shooting people. On the other hand, games are so satirical (how many Donald Trump simulators are on Steam now?) that it is hard to take them seriously.

What makes and breaks its critique is the fact that you live and explore it. There is literally one puzzle in this game and its strength lies in experiencing the city and the slow descent into ruin. You see it, you live it, it comes gradually. This is also where the critique gets weak. Each decade needs to push the enveloper farther, and it steers into 1984 territory but not necessarily in a good way. Eventually, it is as if everything bad possible happens and in the last available decades, it starts to look implausible.

The final push comes when you solve the game’s one and only real puzzle, the epilogue is a Utopian dream that is the complete opposite of life before. Perry Sim and his family are happy and about to leave on vacation. They have healthcare, social security, and the whole world just seems like a safer place. I love those things and they should be a human right in every country, but it did feel a bit heavy handed. However, there are plenty of negative things in the game that have come to pass in our actual world, so it is not completely off the mark. That is a little frightening.

Videogames from big budgets are no longer auteur works and understand the difficulties in creating a strictly political game with a teams of hundreds of people, even though I would really like to see some. But if AAA studios can’t go political (and time has proven so far that this is best done in the indie space anyway) then they can still learn from AMFV in the ambitious creation of the open world, where the player comes to love it by experiencing it through time.

A Mind Forever Voyaging was never commercially successful and not terribly popular, but since the whole industry seems to be caught up in nostalgia, it deserves to be looked at anew and iterated on. After all, it was released in 1985 and its political message is just a relevant now as it was back then.

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Just Cause 2: A Review Sun, 16 Jul 2017 20:04:47 +0000 The worst part of open world games is that they seem huge and full of potential but then you end up doing the same shit over and over again. Just Cause 2 has you playing as Scorpio, a mercenary/special ops kind of guy working for the U.S. government to destabilize a made up fascist regime […]

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The worst part of open world games is that they seem huge and full of potential but then you end up doing the same shit over and over again. Just Cause 2 has you playing as Scorpio, a mercenary/special ops kind of guy working for the U.S. government to destabilize a made up fascist regime on a made up island nation called Panau by doing the same shit over and over again. The irony of the game is that to destabilize the military and get the dictator out of hiding, you not only have to partner up with the country’s three terrorist/criminal organizations, you also have to destroy the islands infrastructure.

Panau is going to have a shitty time rebuilding without its water, electricity, gas, oil, and communications. But hey, at least they will be free! The game is such a farce of North American 80’s action movies that the story and its characters is quite off-putting. Here is the evil dictator, Baby Panay or something, a copy of Team America‘s depiction of Kim Jong Il.  There is Tom Sheldon, your boss and an amalgamation of every gross and dumb American stereotype. He loves barbecue and hates commies. It is just so overplayed and bland at this point. I get that it is supposed to be satire, but does that really work in an open world?

There is potential for so much time between narrative that whatever punch the satire might have is lost. A common thread in stories in open world games, but this is especially damaging when critiquing a country’s foreign policy. There is a potential for a lot to get lost between storyline cuts cenes – depending on how much you do between them – which means that whatever message the game wants to deliver is likely to get lost.

It is also not terribly clever.

Playing Just Cause 2 for the story is like seeing a movie at the local theatre just to eat popsorn. It’s an expected part of the experience but is completely unnecessary. The optional missions from the three crime lords – the sexual communist revolutionary leader, the disease obsessed and probably dying mafia kingpin, and the stereotypical mystical native – are a bit more interesting and varied. There are escort quests, assassination quests, and sometimes you get to blow up special things. My favorite faction quest has you fly to an island set apart from the main one. In an effort not to spoil too much, the entire mission is an homage to a famous television show. While the things you need to do there do not differ from the usual, the whole mission’s scope is bigger than the rest and it is refreshing. The whole quest has a sense of purpose, cosmetic or not, that adds meaning. For the story, all you have to do is destroy stuff and once enough things have been blown up, you get the next cringe inducing cut scene.

Oh and then there are the races because every open world game needs races. Besides the car and motorcycle ones, I found these to be incredibly frustrating with a keyboard and mouse and skipped most of them. Maybe it would have been different with a controller.

The game map is so big that if you follow the main story missions, you will barely get to 30% completion. It is clear that the developers wanted to create a fun open world for your destructive whimsy and the story was added because every game needs a story. This doesn’t mean that the game isn’t fun, however. There is joy in creating spectacles of explosions or performing stunts but the game has just enough problems to really be a good game.

Your weapons, ammo, and vehicles come from the black market supplier who air drops whatever you desire at your feet. In the game, this means opening up a menu, watching a cut scene, selecting the thing you want, watching another cut scene, and then finally getting it into your inventory. If you want to order more than one thing at a time, be ready to repeat this process for each item. The cut scenes can be skipped but they still need to load and even these additional few seconds each time was enough for me to rarely use the black market except for fast travel (extraction). The planes handle strange and I found them almost un-maneuverable. When your threat level gets high enough, which happens bloody fast, the soldiers keep pouring in non-stop and if you can fend them off, the army sends in attach helicopters.

In most cases, I didn’t have the freedom to really wreak havoc on the scale I planned because I had to keep managing the threats and my quickly depleting ammo. Ironically enough, a lot of the military bases are sprawled out so the threat meter would naturally go down as I looked for the next collectible to get or destructible item to shoot up. Destroying a water tower and a gas station in a remote village would bring down hell-fire and brimstone while assaulting a military base often just sends in a few red shirts.

To 100% a settlement, you have to collect all the collectibles in the area as well as destroy all the things. Finding collectibles isn’t too difficult as Scorpio has a goodie radar so you will find most of them just by exploring the site. The destructables are also pretty easy to spot – water towers, communication towers, giant gas tanks – but there are also tiny generators and transformers that sometimes lie hidden in remote parts of the area. Hunting these down to get the last few percents can sometimes be extremely annoying. In some locations I spent 15 minutes just to find some shitty little box wedged between two buildings.

Story and setting aside, Just Cause 2 provides a lot of fun even though it runs out of gas. To get really prolonged entertainment out of it worthy of its giant map, you will need to either be super creative and love doing similar things over and over or delve into the world of mods.

As a stand-alone experience, the game offers too much with too little variety. I understand that a large map is required if you want to showcase every type of environment that has ever existed, and the game does that. You will wreak havoc in cities, deserts, snow capped mountains, jungles, rivers, swamps – almost every type of environment you can imagine. The landmark locations help add some excitement and goals to the game but at the end of the day, if you are at 35-40% completion, you have basically seen everything. Yet, the map beckons.

Maybe over here there will be something new. Did you find the bubble gun? The beached whale? Small gaffs and nods spread thin over hundreds of miles. Maybe the next mission will be different. Maybe this military base will have something new. It never does.

No wonder Scorpio looks tired and sad every time he accepts a faction mission.

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Sleeping Dogs: A Review Sun, 11 Jun 2017 22:13:27 +0000 Sleeping Dogs was sold to me as Infernal Affairs: the Game and as someone who loves Heroic Bloodshed, how could I say no? The story of the game follows the story of Wei Shen, a Hong Kong native who has returned from living in the United States for a long time. His job is to […]

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Sleeping Dogs was sold to me as Infernal Affairs: the Game and as someone who loves Heroic Bloodshed, how could I say no?

The story of the game follows the story of Wei Shen, a Hong Kong native who has returned from living in the United States for a long time. His job is to go undercover in the Sun On Yee triad and try to bring it down from the inside. Sleeping Dogs does its best to capture the back and forth between being a gangster and a cop as seen in Hong Kong movies such as Infernal Affairs and Hard Boiled both narratively and mechanically.

There are two leveling systems that work in parallel during the main missions – triad and police. During the course of the main missions, completing violent actions and being chaotic will score you more triad points. The police points start at maximum at the beginning of the mission and decrease by crashing into property, missing actions, killing civilians, and generally being a bad cop. This dual system encouraged me to play the game more carefully and thoughtfully than I would normally have. In GTA or Saints Row, I never cared what I blew up and whose grandmother I just ran over.

I didn’t have to play this way but since in Sleeping Dogs I am playing undercover cop Wei Shen, I felt a responsibility to at least try to be a good person and act accordingly.

The missions are almost all about you getting the trust of Triad higher-ups and are comprised of gang heists, chauffeuring people, and getting wedding cakes. At first, you start with relatively light mobster activities, such as threatening shop owners and beating up rivals. It doesn’t take long for the stakes to rise and Wei rises in the ranks from an outsider who some have a suspicion of being a rat to a Triad boss. Throughout this process, he has to balance his loyalty to the police force and the triads. Making things more complicated is the police captain who is perhaps more ruthless than the Triad bosses and Jackie, Wei’s childhood friend turned wannabe gangster who soon realizes that being a triad member isn’t as glamorous as advertised.

The game consists of the standard open-world type missions. There are side quests, races, challenges and the story missions. Combat is mostly hand to hand and has you flying around the area punching and kicking people in the face while dodging and counter-attacking when fists come flying at you. True to Hong Kong, there aren’t too many guns lying around the world but when you do get your hands on them, the game turns into a sort of cover shooter. Enemies try to flank you so you still want to keep moving which makes it more dynamic than it could have been. Vaulting over obstacles turns on bullet time for those adrenaline John Woo moments.

Combat is backed by a strong story element telling a story of an undercover cop that gets too close to the triads. Cliche, perhaps, but is executed quiet well. We see Wei struggle with his role, we see him care for Jackie, and we see him be torn about who he actually is. Over the course of the game, we get glimpses into Wei’s past life and how his mission might be grounded in a desire for revenge rather than being a good cop.

Most of the characters in the game are male although there are plenty of female characters relegated to secondary roles. Most of these are found in the romances in the game which end up being just a few dates before fizzling out, usually due to Wei’s reluctance to get attached. While the game doesn’t do much for equal representation, it does attempt to throw some stereotypes back into the face of our male protagonist. One of the girls, an American named Amanda, has “yellow fever” – something more commonly attributed to white men who fetishize Asian women. Another, a karaoke hostess named Tiffany, “cheats” on Wei and when you confront her about it, she points out the double standard you are trying to enforce on her. After all, at this point in the game, you have been on dates with other women since dating her.  If gangster men can have multiple women, why can’t gangster women have multiple men? She then storms off, leaving Wei a bit stunned.

Sleeping Dogs stays true to the movies which inspired it, which were almost all overwhelmingly male. Even when John Woo tried to be more representative and include a female character in Hard Boiled, she was still relegated to an almost background characters.

It is understandable since Heroic Bloodshed movies tend to focus on male relationships and were mostly made in the 1980s and early 1990s, a time when being more inclusive wasn’t really thought about. I like that Sleeping Dogs took inspiration from these films but I also feel they could have done a lot more to make it more compelling rather than playing it safe. It is solid for what it is, but could have been so much more. This isn’t limited to the female characters. Of all the characters, Jackie’s arch is probably the best told, although even that one falls into predictable cliche territory.

As a GTA clone, it is hard not to compare it to the ever popular Rockstar Games series. I have never been that drawn to the Grand Theft Auto series. They draw too much from Scorsese’s mobster films and try too hard to be a commentary on the deprived American culture. I can get on board with mobsters and commenting on depravity, but the mix of the two in Scorsese’s mobster works has always been off-putting. I am not sure I can put my finger on it, but I think it is because he spends so much time telling us things and showing us things that a lot of his works just seem over stuffed and poorly paced. On top of that, the unnecessary cursing and being more style over substance just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Martin Scorsese won an Oscar for The Departed which is a Hollywood remake of Infernal Affairs. Like The Departed, the GTA series tries hard to be edgy and provide commentary on American culture to the point it feels gratuitous and unnecessary, padding that adds no substance or value except perhaps to shock and tittilate. In comparison, Infernal Affairs and to a lesser extent Sleeping Dogs is more subdued, more intricate and more human.

This is accomplished by putting faith in the player/viewer to deduce relationships and tension between characters without being told over and over again what is happening.

There is a third part to the story here and that is of Wei, a Hong Kong Chinese who immigrated to San Francisco and who has now returned. We can see that it is a struggle for him in how he talks (only in English) even with other characters who only speak Cantonese. He is slowly adjusting to a culture he is not completely part of anymore and he stands out. When King, a music producer, comes over to Hong Kong to do business, Wei is tasked with showing him a good time. There are a few moments in this mission where I felt uneasy because Wei is a bit complacent with King’s attitude towards Hong Kong but this might be because Wei feels more American than Hong Konger.  The contrast between Wei and the others really highlight the extent of his Americanization and his fellow Triad members treat him accordingly. Over time, he comes to call Hong Kong home again but you never see him really fit in.

Ultimately, Sleeping Dogs communicates on multiple layers to the player – what do I do as a Triad? What do I do as a cop? What do I do as a person? – without beating it into you via exposition or other nonsense. Sure, you can explode your way through the game and enjoy the playground for what you want it to be, but there are moments in the game where there is so much going on if you want to stop and reflect.

Like the scene with Tiffany described above, we can choose how to respond and in what way. Do we let her go, do we shoot her? In the missions this is represented with the level system. Do we try to minimize the impact of our gang fight on the surrounding civilians and property or is winning the mission at all costs more important? If we don’t speak Cantonese, we have to rely on subtitles for a good part of the game and even Wei, who should understand some at least, according to his back story, doesn’t seem to catch everything. This is apparent in the scenes featuring Winston’s mother who speaks no English. Wei will sometimes scoff or act surprised at Chinese customs and traditions but praying at Buddhist shrines raises your max health. (I supposed they could do more with the duality of Hong Kong and China, but I may have missed it.)

There is a subtle duality of forces in this game that exist for those who stop and pay attention because it is not shoved into your face and I appreciate that. The game does much to improve on the open-world formula laid out all those years ago by GTA. Both the story-telling, the focus, and the mechanics are tighter, better, and more engaging. Still. it could have been more.

Recommended Reading:

Kevin Wong’s What Sleeping Dogs Gets So Right About Being An Asian American




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The Methodology Behind The Witness Mon, 01 May 2017 16:18:34 +0000 Much has been said about The Witness’s ability to teach the player how to solve its puzzles. In designing the puzzles, Jonathan Blow worked from simple to complex, and while the game is arguably genius in how it teaches the player, the methodological ideas behind it were defined 70 years ago. In school, most of […]

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Much has been said about The Witness’s ability to teach the player how to solve its puzzles. In designing the puzzles, Jonathan Blow worked from simple to complex, and while the game is arguably genius in how it teaches the player, the methodological ideas behind it were defined 70 years ago.

In school, most of us probably “learned” by memorizing things. Facts, people, dates, rules, formulas – these were all presented to us as “important” and we had to remember them for some type of test or exam. How many of those things do you still remember? Chances are, you forgot them once you finished the test. Not only did we not see the relevance or the skills being taught, they were mainly being taught by reading and lecturing. These are hardly effect learning methods for most people but we knew we needed to know this stuff for a test so we studied. By studied, it means we memorized and then, after the test, we didn’t need this information before. We got the grades, but did it really reflect what we learned?

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Someone tried to change that. In 1956, Benjamin Bloom developed a taxonomy to promote different styles of learning besides rote memorization. It has been through some slight variations over time but still provides an effective guide for teachers in effectively presenting material to their students.

By using the principles of Bloom’s Taxonomy in the classroom, teachers try to add dimension and guidance in new subject matter. Rather than providing the information and hoping that the students will remember it, teachers can use the different verb groups to develop activities which should help enforce the subject matter in multiple ways. This should encourage a multi-faceted approach to teaching, where material is presented in many different ways to connect with as many different students as possible.

For teachers, Bloom’s Taxonomy is usually presented as a wheel. To use the wheel, you start at knowledge, pick a verb or two (this is what students will do) and a product (this is what the students will produce) and then design the lessons around that.

In teaching, we do not have to “hit” all six parts of the taxonomy, but we need to get around the wheel in chunks that build upon the foundation built in the previous chunk.

(For a more in-depth example, please see this table, taken from UNC Charlotte’s Center for Teaching and Learning)


So how does this apply to The Witness? The tutorial puzzles are all simple enough that, with some experimentation, we are able to solve them. In doing so, we remember the rules in solving them until we get to another puzzle that seems to go against what we have learned. But we use what we learn to solve the next one and then proceed.

From left to right, we see gradual increase in puzzle complexity, each variation building on the one that came before.

  • First, we are presented with a simple puzzle type with one rule that we can solve easily. From this point, we can recognize the puzzle panels and remember how to solve them (drawing a line)  – Knowledge
  • Second, we are presented with variations of the puzzle. We can explain how to solve them, even if we haven’t figured out the specifics for the puzzle. – Comprehension
  • Third, we can use what we have learned to solve other puzzles of the same or similar type. – Application
  • Fourth, we can analyze new puzzles and using the knowledge we have gained from previous ones (because they build on each other) we can learn the new rules. – Analysis
  • Fifth, we can use what we have learned to solve puzzles that combine different elements on the same panel. – Synthesis
  • Sixth, we learn to recognize the pattern to the world outside of the panels. – Evaluation

When the solutions are presented, we see same patterns require different solutions. In the final puzzle panel, we need to isolate the black squares instead of the the white ones.

The Witness cycles through these stages for each new type of puzzle we come across, building upon the foundation of puzzles that came before. In introducing new puzzle elements, The Witness will often end the tutorial sections with a puzzle that are designed to ensure that the player has understood the concept. In the example pictured above, the last panel’s endpoint is placed to make the puzzle seem much harder despite the dots having the same pattern. Instead of thinking of the puzzle as “contain the white dots”, it is solved by “containing” the black ones. It might not make much sense when I describe it, but the act of doing will hopefully make it clearer.

These types of quick review are known as CCQs, or Concept Checking Questions, in teaching. The purpose is to get the student to demonstrate that they have been learned what they were supposed to before going on to the next lesson. A good CCQ will push the student to provide an answer that enables the teacher to interpret whether the concepts taught in the lesson were grasped or not. Therefore, a teacher should not ask a student “Did you understand this?” because the student can just say “yes” and we can’t check that they actually do. The Witness accomplishes this by giving us a puzzle panel that is just a little bit off – as an example, the exit could be placed in a different spot in an otherwise identical puzzle – that can only be solved if the player actually learned what they were supposed to.

As a whole, they attempt to lead the player through understanding until they acquire enough knowledge to properly synthesize everything they have learned and apply them to the final puzzles deep within the mountain.

The infamous final puzzle is the culmination of all this knowledge and practice that came before. Under timed pressure, the player has to quickly complete 5 rudimentary puzzles, one of which they will have to memorize. Then, they will need to quickly deduce which of three sets of three puzzles have solutions  (the other 2 most likely aren’t). After that, they will need do complete the task again but also recall the layout of the puzzle they did at the beginning, lest they lose time. Finally, they will have to complete the hardest puzzles of all, where the grid has been wrapped around a column.

Just about everything you have done puzzle wise is necessary to either reach or solve that one final puzzle. The final stage, synthesis, I loosely prescribe to recognizing the panel puzzles in the natural world, with the ever so gentle push of the simple puzzle at the top of the mountain. We take what we have been taught and step outside the box so to speak and apply it to the rest of the game world.

Am I Dumb if I Didn’t Learn The Witness?

If you thought that The Witness’s puzzles were too hard and that the game did not teach you anything, you might this that this whole piece is trash. Maybe it is, but let’s consider Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. Gardner proposed that people have seven distinct intelligences which dictate learning, memory, remembering, and understanding. These are visual-spatial, bodily-kinaesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical.

In a classroom, material and media are broadly categorized as visual, text, sound, motion, and realia. It may seem hard to cater to all different intelligences when teaching a subject, but through the different media, the hope is that teachers are able to convey information and foster thinking through all of them.

The Witness is a little hard to classify since it is a videogame. It is both visual but at the same time the panels and the world construct a certain faux-realia. Additionally, the panel puzzles appear to be all catering to a mathematical-logical intelligence, even the sound ones. The shadow panels and others which are dependent on viewing angles suggest a more kineasthetic learning intelligence, albeit virtual. The puzzles in The Witness then really only fit into two types – mathematical-logical(the panel puzzles) and visual-spatial (the black obelisk puzzles and shadow puzzles). This does not open the game up to many different intelligences.

Remember the wheel? There is one important variable that is missing from game – product. If the product of the teaching is the solution to the puzzles, then The Witness does not do enough to challenge us in creating a range of different products with our new-found knowledge.

Does it Matter How The Witness Teaches If It Isn’t Good at Teaching?

The teaching that happens here is almost overwhelmingly directed at specific learner intelligences, for better or worse, with a single abstract product. In short, the game teaches players one thing very well within a narrow scope. (This mostly applies to the mechanics and actual playing of the game. Taken from a broader perspective as a whole, the game is really a great lesson in meditation and perspective, but perhaps that is for another post.)

The problem with educational games, in my experience, is that they do not use the medium to the fullest – they barely even get a quarter of the way. In games, we have an opportunity to present material in diverse and interesting ways. Yet, educational games tend to be just normal videogames with an “educational” layer on top of them. Oregon Trail doesn’t teach players about Manifest Destiny or the push for the West. Instead, we learn that fording rivers is hard.

In the end, The Witness does follow a well-developed pedagogical methodology for teaching and challenging the player without any form of instruction. Hopefully, this can serve as an inspiration for some truly educational games which actually try to teach.


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Games Can’t Portray Addiction Right Sun, 09 Apr 2017 20:30:05 +0000 “This will be the last cigarette I ever smoke” is something I tell myself about once a week after I finish a pack. It doesn’t take more than a few hours before I have a new pack sitting in front of me. —  Going out for a cigarette has become a habit that I do […]

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“This will be the last cigarette I ever smoke” is something I tell myself about once a week after I finish a pack. It doesn’t take more than a few hours before I have a new pack sitting in front of me. —  Going out for a cigarette has become a habit that I do without thinking. Whether it is after a meal, as a way to punctuate a job well done on a work task, or that one last cigarette at night, smoking has become part of my daily routine. It is as natural as eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom.

To describe the craving of a cigarette to someone to who doesn’t smoke is difficult. I suppose it may be different for everyone, but I get mildly anxious – like when you don’t remember if you turned the stove off before you left the house. No matter how much I try to put it in the back of my mind, after a while I find myself downstairs at the corner tobacco shop buying cigarettes and milk or something. The “or something” is more an excuse than anything, since I don’t want to tell myself that I came here just to buy cigarettes that I don’t want to smoke (but feel that I need to).

I do want to quit, really. I no longer feel cool doing it, and most of the time I don’t even enjoy it. Sitting in a cafe drinking fancy coffee and having a cigarette is nice, but sitting on my balcony in zero degree weather just because some part of my mind is telling me that I have to smoke is not. And since I have built up a tolerance, I sometimes smoke two cigarettes each smoke break rather than one. I don’t want to say that I struggle with tobacco addiction because I don’t want to compare myself to others who have more severe addictions to more dangerous substances. I know tobacco is dangerous but it is usually a slow burn to the grave rather than a gas fire. The negative effects tend to creep up on you and you don’t notice them until it feels too late. It has been on my mind a lot recently since I am trying to develop a habit of not smoking unless I enjoy it, and I have been failing spectacularly. I have been thinking about how, or if, videogames can portray the kind of boring, everyday addiction that I have to tobacco.

In videogames, drugs are usually presented as bad but useful things. Examples of this that I can think of are the plasmids in Bioshock or Jet (and the other chems) in Fallout. Plasmids give you superpowers that you use to mow down people, Splicers, who have become addicted and twisted by their use. There is dark irony behind using drugs to fight drug addicts, but the plasmids are just an excuse to fit super powers into the world they have created. Yet the player character does not become addicted, nor do they suffer from the use of the drug – at least not mechanically.

In Fallout, all of the drugs have a positive effect but if you take one enough you can become addicted. This results in  negative status effects if you go too long without the drug in your system. I suppose I can relate, as I get cranky or frustrated if I go too long without a cigarette. That nagging feeling that I need one always in the back of my head can get to me, yet I feel that Fallout does not do enough to really force the player to confront their addiction. Status effect penalties can be offset with good gear, for example, and the player is still always in control. What’s more, to get rid of an addiction in later Fallout games, you can just go to the doctor and give them some money. If that worked in real life, I would do that. I have tried chewing nicotine gum and it doesn’t work. From experience, if I have just enough money for lunch or for a pack of cigarettes, I will choose the cigarettes. Even if I am not smoking, I feel more comfortable knowing I have easy access to cigarettes. This makes it almost easier for me to not smoke if I have cigarettes than when I don’t. But Fallout doesn’t simulate this need for the player.

In “Magic and Mushrooms: What Happens When Video Games Take Drugs Seriously?“, Alex Epstein (Narrative Director of We Happy Few) says:

“It’s hard to do (realistic drug depiction) in games. Addiction represents losing control of yourself. Gamers hate that.”

If I could control my cravings, I wouldn’t be leaving my apartment at 1 in the morning to buy a pack of cigarettes just so I could have one smoke before I went to bed. For a game to really simulate addiction, it has to remove control from the player to make the character do things that someone who is addicted would do. This means having the game become harder or frustrating the more the player plays unless they perform the action. In Fallout, the character could be forced to spend money on the chem they are addicted to instead of what they wanted to buy or the player character could be forced to go find more chems instead of whatever quest they are on. The irony of Fallout 4’s addiction is that you can take a drug to cure your drug addiction.

In this light, I feel that Far Cry 2 and the player character’s malaria come pretty close to adequately depicting addiction. At somewhat random parts of the game you have to stop what you are doing and take a malaria pill. The screen goes kind of funky and you can’t run or jump or shoot back. If you don’t take medicine you fall over and pass out, only to wake up later in a church. To get medicine for the malaria, you have to do optional side-missions. They are not required but by not doing them, you will be even more inconvenienced by malarial attacks.

So we have a condition that you have to do something you don’t want to do (getting malaria pills) and if you don’t do it, your actual gaming experience will be worse. I imagine most players would make sure to go out of their way to always have the pills on hand. Much like how I go out of my way to ensure I have a pack of cigarettes on hand. It is not a superficial change like a gentle negative stat modifier which makes the compulsion stronger. The Far Cry wiki describes it pretty well:

“Malaria in Far Cry 2 was met with much criticism from players, as the random attacks frequently interrupted gameplay at bad times (such as during combat), and players felt forced to do the Underground side missions as the medicine prevents the character from passing out.”

The key to representing addiction is not just taking control away from the player but inconveniencing the player so much so that they will go out of the way to deal with it. It feels just like those times when I decide my route to work depending on whether it has a tobacconist along it or not. Of course, basing a whole game around this would be very challenging. Alex Epstein continues:

” I would love to see a game where your character is an alcoholic. Then, a certain number of times, when you go behind a bar, you wake up in a ditch with half your money gone. Then you say, ‘Oh, shit! I shouldn’t have gone by that bar.’ Now you’re thinking like an alcoholic.”

Games are pretty bad at displaying what it is like being addicted to something, of course, because there is that whole control thing. Drugs are either a stand-in for magic or included as something bad and “edgy”. They often portray addicts as junkies that are OK to kill or ignore which is problematic.

Most of us are addicted to something, whether it is cigarettes, coffee, certain foods, or videogames themselves. Stories tend to focus on extreme consequences of hardcore addiction but not so much on the day to day. Games, being the special medium they are, can probably do a better job of that but if we are all already addicted to something, is there a point?

I used to work in a liquor store in University and there was one regular that came in every day after work and bought a flask of vodka and a pack of Camels. Every single day. When I saw him enter the store, I prepped his things for him, thinking I was doing a good job at customer service. When my boss saw me to this he took me aside after the customer left. “You can’t do that. I know you think you are doing a good thing but you are acknowledging that he has a problem.”

Maybe having games accurately portray addiction would require us to look into the mirror just a little too much. My parents both used to get on my case about smoking. Cancer is almost a common thing in my family, as are heart problems. I know all these things but the knowledge doesn’t help. If a game portrayed addiction accurately, it wouldn’t affect me – I know I have a problem and I don’t need to be reminded of it. But, it might help those people who don’t smoke to feel, even just a little, how hard it is to stop.

Cigarettes smoked while writing this post: 5

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Tharsis: Gambling in Space Sun, 19 Mar 2017 15:58:56 +0000 You barely fixed the life support module in time. The air is getting thing. Through a window, you see a never ending stream of debris floating through space. You know that the debris is coming from the ship. This is no longer a return trip. “Houston, we have a problem” is an understatement in a […]

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You barely fixed the life support module in time. The air is getting thing. Through a window, you see a never ending stream of debris floating through space. You know that the debris is coming from the ship. This is no longer a return trip.

“Houston, we have a problem” is an understatement in a game where you might need to eat your pilot.

The game puts the player in charge of recovering a space mission gone horribly wrong. You have to manage the remaining crew to repair sections of the ship while also providing enough food and energy to survive to the next turn. Every turn brings more hazards that will damage your crew and ship or make it harder to survive the next turn.

Everything is done by rolling dice. Tharsis is, in some ways, a complicated version of Yahtzee. You have a few rolls to get the numbers you need. Some numbers will hurt you and others will be unusable but there is almost always something you can use the dice for. Though it isn’t always what you need. The number of dice is dependent on the health of your crew, which needs to be maintained either through food or through medicine. And when the food runs out, it’s time to eat your friends.

To survive till the end, you will need to learn to properly manage your crew and balance the risk and reward in how you use your dice. Ineffective risk management will end in failure. Each turn forces you to evaluate which modules need attention, how much time you really have until the ship explodes, and the chances of rolling the numbers you need. In addition to that, you need to keep your crew fed and hopeful. If they start starving and feeling stressed, you will have a bad time.

The secret to winning is knowing that luck can’t be controlled, but it can be influenced. On the surface, Tharsis looks like a game completely up to chance. But because of its multiple uses for dice and the different modules, every action has a potential benefit and consequence. Survival is based on taking calculated risks with the probability of rolling the dice you need. Can your ship take a point of extra damage this turn in return for more food for the crew? And would it even be worth it? There aren’t ever any sure good choices, but there are bad choices and worse choices.

The short game sessions made it easy to learn the risk management skills needed to reach the end. Each survived turn is an achievement. It is very nice to have such a short but rewarding experience you can jump into for short bursts of time. Even if it means eating your colleagues.

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Hearthstone Sheds Poor Design Decisions with Year of the Mammoth Mon, 20 Feb 2017 00:22:02 +0000 Hearthstone has never seemed to really have a coherent design to it, often resulting in knee-jerk nerfs that take almost too long to ever come out. I have been playing Hearthstone on and off since before official release and almost since then, the meta has favored one clear deck over the others. There have always […]

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Hearthstone has never seemed to really have a coherent design to it, often resulting in knee-jerk nerfs that take almost too long to ever come out. I have been playing Hearthstone on and off since before official release and almost since then, the meta has favored one clear deck over the others. There have always been a low number of viable decks but from those few there has always been one that is clearly better than the others. Often this is due to bad card design – not because the cards are bad or grossly over-powered (although sometimes they are!) but because not enough consideration was made in how this card will work with others.

The most egregious example of this was Patron Warrior – a deck based around a 3/3 that spawned a copy of itself if it survived damage – and Warsong Commander – a card that enabled all those 3/3s to attack when they normally weren’t supposed to. This decklist was strong because the Warrior class had enough cards that synergy really well with this combo – such as frothing berserker – and no other classes had a way to consistently deal with it.

Even when Blizzard makes a card that is intended for pure fun and not competitive, it can backfire. This happened with Yogg-Sauron. Yogg is a complete random card that often results in disastrously hilarious results but somehow the card still remained effective for the highest tiers of Hearthstone play. The resulting nerf, or change to make the card less powerful, also made it less fun to play because the card’s effect would rarely play out in full.

With the new announcement for the “Year of the Mammoth“, Blizzard is changing up Hearthstone quite a bit. The biggest change is moving cards in the Classic set – the core set of Hearthstone cards that were intended to be evergreen, i.e. never rotate out. Some of these cards have become staples, not only in certain decks, but also of Hearthstone. For people who have been platying from the beginning, Ragnaros and Sylvans (both being rotated out of Standard) were iconic legendaries that you hoped you would get in your next pack. These cards single-handledly turned the game around and for new players were both frustrating to face and drove them to continue playing in the hopes of every getting one of them. These cards perfectly symbpoloized what a legendary was meant to be.

However, even back then they were really strong. As new sets came out and adventures were released, legendary cards were a mixed bag. For every over powered and must have for a deck (such as Dr. Boom) there are tens of either too situational, less optimized, or just downright terrible legendaries. For a lot of them, it isn’t that they are bad but when compared to other, often less rare, cards their effects do not stack up. This is why cards such as Azure Drake were often included in decks that didn’t need the extra spell damage. Blizzard has created cards that fit into every deck and make it hard to find reasons to include others in the mana curve.

Their response is to take Classic cards and effectively retire them to what they are calling the “Hall of Fame” but in reality it is just removing them from standard. I have often felt that new cards in Hearthstone have been lacking at best or are extreme reactions to a certain deck archetype at worst. Part of the problem is that there just isn’t enough cards, or rather, aa large amount of cards are filler. Of course, TCGs need filler cards in them but when your basic card pool is small (compared to a lot of other card games) and a lot of your cards are weak, it makes it easy to create over powered cards without intending to do so.

The changes coming up in the next year seem to try to address this. The Classic cards being rotated out are to make way for other cards that could potentially be game breaking if paired with Sylvanas, for example. It should also make choosing cards more decision based. It also seems like Blizzard is going to be releasing more cards than they used to next year, with 3 130 card expansions. These changes will hopefully give us a more diverse meta game.

But I can’t help but look at this through the lens of their past blunders. There have always been cards that were auto-included – Dr. Boom, Shredder, Belcher – and unless they change their design philosophy (or actually formulate one as some would say) I have a hard time seeing them accomplish this. If they keep releasing garbage like their Rager cards, Hearthstone will fall into the same trap it always has.

Ultimately, I feel it comes down to the division between the creators wanting Hearthstone to be casual and the players wanting it to be competitive. It adds an extra layer of complexity where fun cards that are not optimized get thrown to the curb by t he players. No one likes losing and even at the lower tiers you will face people playing netdecks – even in casual mode. The end result is a bunch of cards that only get used as placeholders until the players can get the cards they really need, and a large number of cards that get overlooked.

Hopefully these changes will improve the game. It looks like Blizzard is trying to slow it down by reducing burst and removing cost-effective powerful cards. Their past card design decisions have limited their ability to maintain a compelling game and we will see if they have learned something with the Year of the Mammoth.

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Thea: The Awakening Review Sun, 12 Feb 2017 20:12:41 +0000 Once upon a time, someone had an idea to combine as many different types of games as possible and make it work- so now we have Thea. Videogame genres are usually pretty loose and hard to define but we usually have the vocabulary to describe, at the very least, surface concepts of a game. In […]

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Once upon a time, someone had an idea to combine as many different types of games as possible and make it work- so now we have Thea. Videogame genres are usually pretty loose and hard to define but we usually have the vocabulary to describe, at the very least, surface concepts of a game. In that context, Thea is impossible to describe – part card game, part survival roguelike, part 4x, part resource management, part choose your own adventure, and part RPG.

You have one base, your home village, and you can’t expand to any further locations. This means that the majority of the game will be spent sending out search parties to do quests, kill monsters, and gather materials to bring back to your village where your craftsmen will turn them into food and equipment.

Thea has my favorite crafting system I have seen so far in a game. Where most game will have recipes where specific materials create specific things Thea makes it more interesting. For example, every recipe has 3 components – a primary, a secondary, and a catalyst (wood, coal, etc.) and there is only one recipe for each kind of equipment. To get different types of equipment, with different stats, you need to choose different primary and secondary materials. This fluid crafting system makes it so you almost always have something to make if you need it, even if it is not the best. Also, it makes the crafting system something to explore, finding out which materials create what kinds of equipment.

It is important to maintain good equipment, because the world of Thea is inhospitable. Spider, goblins, orcs, and worse roam the world. To fight these creatures, and to pass what would normally be skill checks in traditional role playing games, you need to win a card game. Each person in your village or scouting party’s equipment and stats determine what abilities their card will have. The card game takes some time getting used to as the presentation and rules are not immediately clear. Also, to really be effective at it, you either need to have the numbers (more villagers) or varied equipment to make sure you have enough abilities on the cards for each situation. Late game, especially in the Return of Giants section, you will need to focus on both to defeat the late game enemies.

There is a lot here that comes together well but makes it hard to really manage everything as you survive through the turns. Somehow you have to balance multiple things with a handful of villagers in a brutal world. The game is punishing and while there is always a chance to come back from a set back, it can be hard to find the motivation to do so sometimes. It can take a lot of turns to get back to where you were after your main party was wiped. This can happen from underestimating enemies, but also from the random events which pop up rather frequently.

These are all narrated by the same person, giving the impression that the story of Thea is being told to you as if someone was reading you a book. Sometimes, these events can force you into fights that you are completely unprepared for. The game doesn’t always give you enough information to assess the situation.

The one design decision I really did not understand was the god progression. The story of the game is that you are a god who has lost most of their powers and they have to guide the remaining worshipers (your village) to restore the world as it was before the great cataclysmic event that made you lose your powers. At the beginning of the game, you choose which god you want to be. Each god grants your villagers some starting benefits to stats and that is all well and good. However, some gods are locked at the beginning of the game and only get unlocked as you play. Each god also has 5 levels that are increased via experience that is accumulated based on your points at the end of the game.

The game rewards players for time spent playing but this does not fit well with the type of game Thea is. A game can take anywhere from 100-400 turns and the score progression is slow. Difficulty can be modified in detail which will add a multiplier to the final score but even fiddling with difficulty settings will not expedite the process. The bummer here is that while Thea’s world is interesting and challenging, it can only go so far. You will eventually start clicking through the random events because you have seen them before and auto resolving a lot of the challenges. This makes unlocking the other gods and their abilities a tedious exercise as the enjoyment of the game and its content doesn’t have enough volume to sink hundreds of hours into it just to get some extra bonuses.

It is a cheap way to get people to stay engaged with the game even though the game itself should be reason enough.  And it is. Thea is a truly unique experience that will push some people away. It will take some dedication to get into thanks to the multiple mechanics. The Slavic mythology inspired world that doesn’t take itself seriously and the vast number of surprises kept me going. Even after 110 hours played, I came across things I hasn’t seen before when a routine adventure gave me a choice that I had never seen before and I ended up recruiting a ghost.

Thea combines a lot of things we are familiar and mixes them together into a truly unique experience. It’s a patchwork quilt of games most will be familiar with but the patches bring the weaknesses with them. The inventory management will bog you down, like it does in many RPGs, the “just one more turn” will become mindless clicks as you just wait for the next big thing to just like in other 4x turn based strategy games. For a game with so much on offer, it gets predictable relatively quickly. I definitely felt like I got more than enough of my money’s worth, but Thea still wanted me to stay around longer than I felt I needed to.

But one day, I am sure I will return to this world and try to save it from darkness again.

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