Sable: ugh

Negative reviews are kind of annoying; but I’m a bad mood and might as well express it, and maybe draw some game design lessons.

I’ve been looking forward to Sable for years. I tried it tonight and bounced off it so hard I got a refund.

From pictures, it looked like it took a lot of inspiration from Moebius. In-game, it’s not quite as impressive: it’s all flat colors and the overall effect is to turn a complicated 3-D scene into simple flatness. And the cutscenes for some reason are low-FPS. For what it’s worth, Moebius usually modeled his shapes with meticulous linework and subtle coloring. But eh, not a big problem.

The big problem is the terrible UI. This is foreshadowed by the moment you get control. You’re in some sort of temple, facing a big sculpture of a face. You can walk around, climb the face, stand on top of it looking outside through a hole in the roof you can’t get out of. Turns out you’re supposed to ignore all that and walk out the other way. Lesson 1: when you highlight something with details and lighting, players will think it’s important and spend time on it. Don’t waste those cues on nothing.

I walked out and ran into a child who offered something I was told I wanted, in return for some beetles. Fine, it’s My First Fetch Quest. You can talk to other people and they’ll give you a vague hint where the beetles are (“go east”). Fine, only…

  • There’s no indication of where east is. It turns out you need a compass, which you get later on.
  • I went east and saw no beetles. The compass highlights points of interest, but there was nothing to indicate where the beetles are. It’s a big world, you can lose insects in a lot of places.
  • Everyone you talk to will give you that same option to talk about the beetles, which you can’t skip.
  • Since I’m in a bad mood, I might as well complain that no one explains why I want the thing the child is offering. Is it a side quest, or something I need to advance the story? No idea.

Lesson 2: Playing hunt-the-pixel was tedious even back in the ’90s. Don’t be mysterious about what you want from the player.

Next, I talked to someone who was supposed to have a glider for me. Cool, supposedly this is the key to the whole game. It’s not ready yet for some reason… fine, it’s a multi-stage quest. But the first step is, he wants you to ride a beater glider to test it out (i.e. preview the skills). The conversation implies that it’s right next to him.

The glider isn’t there. All that’s around him are a few boxes. You can wander around camp or the surrounding desert… there’s nothing that looks like a glider. You can talk to people… no hints. You can bring up the compass… nothing points to a glider. You can talk to Glider Guy again, and he explains where the beetles are, then tells you he won’t talk to you till you’ve flown the glider which he won’t tell you where it is. There is no option to skip the beater glider and get the real one instead.

I looked around for awhile and gave up. If it’s a bug, it’s pretty bad that it makes the tutorial fail. If you’re supposed to wander around the big area available to you until you find it… come on. Lesson 3: don’t hate the player that much. When you’re obviously gating further progress to a task, don’t fucking hide the thing in some non-obvious location.

I did read a few reviews, and obviously some people are progressing easily enough. That’s nice. But to me, the time I spent with the game told me one of two things.

  • Maybe the developers really do hate the player– it’s supposed to be a frustrating grind. In which case, I’m glad I found out within the refund period.
  • Maybe the developers didn’t test their game. Like most developers, their idea of testing was “I ran it once and it didn’t crash.” They know where the damn glider is, so they don’t see a problem. Did they try watching someone else play their game? Even for an indie studio, that level of non-testing is not acceptable.

I’m mildly curious, but very mildly, where these things were. But that’s lesson 4: put the frustrating bits later in the game. Once I’m committed to a game, I’m willing to put up with grind. (It’s astonishing how much time I’ll put into grinding in Minecraft.) But the first hour or two of a game is key to making me feel committed. At that point, you’re still selling the game. Make it interesting and don’t make it impossible.

One more thought: a game can decide that a particular quest item shouldn’t just be highlighted on the map, but there are alternatives besides “randomly hide the thing in a large area and don’t show any clues at all.” E.g. the minimap in Borderlands will highlight you the area where you should hunt. Dishonored had the Heart which gives you the distance to the sought item; by heading to where it beats faster you get the direction. Minecraft has you locate strongholds by throwing an item which will point in the right direction.

Hermitcraft!

This pretty much made my day:

You can see a better view of the picture here.

What is all this? Well, Hermitcraft is a shared Minecraft server whose members all post videos and/or stream on Twitch. They do amazing builds, but they also make games together and interact with the instincts of natural comedians. As the kids say, it’s incredibly wholesome.

When each Hermitcraft season ends, you can download the world map, which I did yesterday. It’s fun to fly around and see things in detail. And of course you can do whatever you want with the map, including adding items. So the joke here is that I added a tiny, ugly shack to Keralis’s beautiful city. And the meta-joke is that it’s not a noob shack made of dirt blocks; I took some time with it to make it really ramshackle. Making your builds far more detailed and interesting than they need to be is something I learned from the Hermitcrafters.

My Minecraft library

My book news is that I’ve been working on the index, and an alert reader’s long list of typos. Then I have to clean up the Sumerian grammar. So naturally I’ve been relaxing with Minecraft.

I feel like I’m getting to be a good builder. Here’s my latest building:

I’m really happy with the detailing. I’ve learned a lot from (though I’m miles short of) Keralis and Bdubs from the Hermitcraft server.

Here’s the inside:

Really nice Minecraft building is a matter of adding completely unnecessary details. Dig the bookcases and the lamps and village bell hung from chains. (It’s also a matter of using blocks for their looks rather than what they’re supposed to be. E.g. that white balcony up above is made of snow.)

I’m trying to make my huge builds actually useful, and this is a trading hall for my Librarians. You can see a couple of them moved in, and now I actually have about eight of them. The pros often lock their villagers into a tiny space, but mine have the run of their magnificent building.

Getting them here was a chore. When I’d moved #2, he got lost. I looked all around and under the building, wondering if he’d been killed by a monster. Finally I found him: he’d gone up my ladder to the roof, where he just stood around humming, unable to find his way back. I rescued him with a boat.

If perchance you want to do this sort of thing, my other bit of advice is to try out builds in Creative. It’s a lot easier to work out block choices and architectural details there, rather than trying to decide in Survival, where changing your mind (e.g. using orange rather than brown terracotta) means wasting resources.

Minecraft megaprojects

So, I made a nice picture to hang in my office.

Ah, you think, you found a way to upload an image in Minecraft. No, no; if there’s a way to do that I don’t know it. I built that image. I took a single map area– 256×256 blocks, or 65,536 total– and laid it out. Then I just made a map of it. Here’s what the land looks like:

Some of you may recognize the picture of Ažirei from here. This picture in particular was appealing because I wasn’t sure how to get a good human skin color. Making pictures this way is tricky, because every block gets reduced to a pixel, and the color differences often disappear. E.g. to get some waves in her hair, I had to add those concrete powder blocks above the rest of the picture. Flush with the blue concrete, the color difference was lost.

Is this kind of insane? Yes, of course. I got the idea from Hermitcraft, specifically VintageBeef, who makes album covers this way. Once I realized how he did it, I had to try it.

I’ve been doing other megaprojects, some of which you can see below.

Left to right you can see what now seems like a very small ziggurat; my new modern (blue and white) villager house; my first (red and white) house; a skyscraper that holds my giant map; two nice buildings containing automated farms; and Tintin’s rocket. The red building jutting out of the hill is my current house (with the office).

I was inspired to do these mostly by watching Keralis, another Hermitcrafter, along with Bdubs. They make absolutely amazing, huge buildings, and even add furnishings inside. (Also, Keralis has the most beautiful accent, some sort of combo of Swedish and Polish.) My current takeaway: the Minecraft noob is satisfied with a boxy house; the advanced player builds things with two layers (e.g columns or overhangs); the real pro uses three. You can see this comparing my old house (two layers) with the buildings at right (three).

Little Nightmares

I don’t even like platformers, but I loved this game. It’s just $4 in the Steam sale, though only for the next eight hours. If I finish this review quickly.

The situation: you are a very small child in an enormous ship full of monsters. You have to escape it and them, and you have no combat skills at all. Your one advantage is your size: you can hide under tables and in small niches the big lumbering things can’t reach. So you sneak around, hide or run from the monsters, climb walls and dressers. There are puzzles to solve to advance, and some collectables to find.

Oh, and for some reason you’re ravenously hungry.

(Supposedly your character is named Six and is a little girl, but nothing in the game itself indicates either fact.)

Edit: I should clarify that it’s not a 1990s 2-D platformer. It’s 2.5D. That is, it’s largely left-to-right, so you’re normally hitting D not W to move forward; but the levels have some depth and you can move around within this area.

I’ve read some reviews that reckoned that the puzzles were too easy. Maybe so, but they’re not intended to be brain-teasers; they’re mostly an excuse to traverse a scary environment. Also that it’s short, which is true– I played it in six hours, and if you’re familiar with this sort of game you can do it in far less.

What’s amazing about the game is a) the beautiful modeling and animations; b) the perfect lighting and level design; c) the sounds; d) the pacing.

It’s a horror game, or maybe a grotesquerie game. The monsters are humans– arguably the game captures a certain feeling from young childhood, when adults outside your close family are huge, inscrutable, and kind of gross. Fitting in with the game’s theme, almost all of them have to do with eating. The Janitor– with impossible long arms that search for you, pictured above– traps children and send them to the kitchen. The Chefs endlessly prepare cuts of meat, including you if they catch you. The Guests gluttonously eat what they prepare.

If you’ve ever seen the films of Jan Švankmeier, there’s definitely a family resemblance. The monsters are grotesque though not especially scary– but of course they’ll kill you if they catch you. They move in a jerky way that suggests stop motion. They have weird designs that may make you think of things pretending to be human, not too successfully. (E.g. the Chefs have expressive faces that are possibly masks hiding their real faces.)

This lovely interview gives some insight into how the animations were made, with nice examples. Note how, for instance, the monsters reach for you, with evident frustration if they can’t reach. If you watch a video this is more comic than scary, but it’s more effective in game, when you have to maneuver yourself skillfully past them.

I’m not sure I’ve talked about lighting before– it sounds like complimenting a game on its catering department. But I don’t talk about it because in most games it’s just adequate. One exception is the original Left 4 Dead, where lighting was carefully used to draw you to objectives.

That’s even more true here. Often the lighting is atmospheric, dark enough to be creepy. Often it focuses attention– it’s subtler than (as some games do) painting the edges white where you can climb up. Sometime it enhances danger, if you don’t know where a danger is lurking. And in a few areas it’s thematic– there are a few places where too much light kills.

The level design and art direction are also amazing: everything contributes to the atmosphere. It’s a very weird place, and the realistic textures and the physics applied to the many objects you can interact with keep it grounded, even if parts of it are baroque (like huge stacks of books or meat). The scale of everything is important too: your character is simply too small to be the child version of the adult monsters, or whoever the chairs and tables are meant for. (For that matter, the furniture, huge for you, seems too small for the monsters.)

The sounds are also well done– little footsteps for you, big clomping steps for the Chef, disgusting eating noises from the Guests. The ship creaks as it sways. When a monster sees you, it lets out an elephant-like shriek; you also hear a heartbeat, signaling how close it is.

As for pacing, I like the way the game has quiet exploring bits, tense sneaking bits, and a few frantic chases. Some games try to take it up to 11 all the time, and even when you’re idle send you an endless stream of messages or voice calls. (Borderlands 2 and Cyberpunk 2077 are particular offenders.) But it’s nice to have safe spots where you can look around, or take a break.

Now, I found a few sections difficult, at least at first. And if you die, sometimes you have to repeat a whole subsection. But it would be disappointing if nothing was difficult. There’s one section where you have to run across a table where Guests are eating, and they will grab you if you come too close. At first I always got grabbed, but I learned how to avoid that (if they get near, jump), but then I kept missing the next jump. I finally got it, and well, once is all you need. Again, people used to platformers don’t seem to find it difficult at all.

One interesting oddity is that there is something sinister about Six herself. As I said, she’s hungry, and has to eat at several points. There’s a logical progression to this, and it makes for a more complicated picture.

There’s a sequel out now, but I haven’t tried that.

Cyberpunk 2077: Worldbuilding, game design

Some miscellaneous thoughts about Cyberpunk 2077. (For the review see here.)

I’d give the worldbuilding, oh, a solid B. It’s what everyone expects from cyberpunk: enhanced humans, hacking, powerful AIs, sinister corporations, sleazy cities, a strangely powerful Japan. I don’t rate it higher because it rarely surprises. It never transcends or questions the genre.

The genre goes down easily because we more or less live in a cyberpunk dystopia, minus the metallic skeletons. We don’t have complete governmental collapse, but the libertarians and Trumpists have been working on that. We have ever-growing inequality where the 90% slowly slide backwards. We have over-powerful tech corps, though Mark Zuckerberg does not manage to attain the gravitas of Saburo Arasaka.

A seeming problem is that very little seems to have changed between the time of Johnny Silverhands and that of V, fifty years later. This seems to be intentional: the corps are most comfortable when there is no change. But this strikes me as ahistorical. Not wanting change is not the same as not getting any. And surely the corps would be motivated to one-up each other by doing new research.

Two deeper questions. One, doesn’t the system work well anywhere? Night City is supposed to be a hive of scum and villainy, but Goro’s backstory suggests that Japan is no better. Why, if the Japanese corps are so phenomenal? Did anywhere in the world manage to keep a different social system?

We see some of the extremes: River’s sister lives in a trailer park, while the mayoral candidate lives in a penthouse. But honestly, after 50+ years of dystopia, I’d expect the differences to be far more extreme. Even today, Zuckerberg doesn’t live in a penthouse, but in a mansion. In 2077 I’d expect the CEOs to live in space stations, or estates the size of Kenya.

Which leads to a further question: is there still a 10%? How much of a privileged class do you need to run a dystopia? You need executives, doctors, bureaucrats, AI wranglers, architects, robotics engineers, database czars, bodyguards, personal trainers, entertainers, cooks. And you’d prefer that none of these people stink, or hate your guts enough to assassinate you. Presumably these are the people who live in the nicer parts of Night City. Still, do they really not care that it’s a violent hellhole? Someone says in-game that 1/5 of the population died in 2076. About 1/100 died in the US in 2020, and the half a million due to Covid was a major political issue. An elite can last indefinitely while oppressing most of the population, but they’d damn well better take care of the 10%.

Two: Why isn’t there a revolution? The game itself shows high-caliber weaponry available to gangs and even individuals– the key event in Johnny’s career is detonating a mini-nuke against Arasaka (though he had corpo help), and the plot of the game shows that acquiring a tank as well as a military assault on a corp are not that difficult. There are enough wars that plenty of people have military experience. When people are desperate, they don’t even care too much about replacing the current system; they’re content to destroy it.

I don’t have much confidence that fascist and/or plutocratic elements won’t take over and ruin major countries. It’s happened before, and our major bulwark against it here in the US– Rooseveltian liberalism– has been systematically undermined. At the same time, in history, fascist regimes usually crack up relatively quickly, while plutocratic ones generate anarchist or socialist opposition. Or just destroy themselves in a depression, allowing new systems to take over.

Also, I know it kind of militates against the cyberpunk atmosphere if you have to say “Over in Denmark and Taiwan, liberal democracy continued to thrive.” But, well, cyberpunk mostly works by narrowing its focus to the US plus a highly distorted picture of 1970s Japan. As ever, sf is how America criticizes itself. But the US isn’t the only country in the world. I don’t think every country is likely to follow our exact path downward. And yes, you could invent an informed, plausible descent for every other country, but that’s not really something we see in history either. Someone usually does better than everyone else.

One thing that strike me as weird about C77’s Night City: it seems to have no sense of race. This may be due to the fact that it’s written by Polish people, who can imagine an American city but not American racial politics. No one seems to notice anyone’s race; we don’t know if Blacks are still disadvantaged, or how Asian-Americans feel about Arasaka. Despite his name, Jackie Welles is Hispanic; the ofrenda quest is about the only recognition of ethnicity in the game.

I mentioned this in the review, but I do think the writers too easily use sexual sleaziness as a shorthand for social corruption. It’s lazy and regressive. I would expect a futuristic utopia to strike us as full of weird sex. People like sex, and if the weirdness can be indulged without exploiting or harming people, why not?

(Related: metal bodies? Eh. As soon as it’s feasible, people will want to be furries.)

Cyberpunk’s linguistics is worth a glance. I like the fact that V’s neurimplants allow her to immediately understand Spanish and Japanese. (Why they trip up over common Spanish phrases like mija, I don’t know. Did she check the “Local Color” checkbox?) It seems realistic that these come standard, but she has to download something for Haitian Creole.

The game makes an attempt at Near-Future English, mostly by adding new words (eddies, chooms, deltas, chrome, output), but also by syntax: apparently Truncation has become far more common, and the cool kids leave out subject pronouns most of the time. They don’t posit any phonological change, but that would be hard to get the voice actors to do. It’s a little surprising that there aren’t many borrowings, even from Japanese. (Though maybe if everyone has in-head translators, there’s no need for borrowings?)

The games’s intention seems to be to make V a blank slate character. You can choose her sex, orientation, appearance, background, and morality. All that is cool, except where the writers impose their own notion of the character. It bugged me, for instance, that even after romancing Judy, when she talks to River she talks only about old boyfriends. It seems careless to give her a full lesbian romance, and not realize that her past would be lesbian (or bisexual) too.

Similarly, though it’s a minor point, her interactions with Jackie’s family and with Goro and Panam suggest that she doesn’t know either Hispanic or Asian culture. But what if V is Hispanic or Asian? I understand that providing alternate dialog for such options would be work. But they did that amount of work anyway! The dialogs go way beyond the needs of the story, so I don’t think it’s asking too much that an AAA game allow us not only to look non-white, but to act it. If it takes more time, lop off two or three of the available cars.

If you’re designing a game with a generic character, I’m afraid it’s harder than ever these days. It’s no longer enough to just remember in the dialog that the player might be female. Sexuality is way more complicated these days; race and ethnicity is more than just providing a couple more skin tones. Maybe it’s too much to ask to provide more than two voice actors– but Saints Row managed that long ago.

One thing I appreciate about the game is that it often remembers your romance partner. They have a hefty series of quests. Afterward, you can visit them and have a nice chat; you call them before the final mission; you get a cutscene and/or credits message later on. I felt a real affection for Judy once I was done, unlike (say) my Skyrim wife, who I could take on quests. It’s also way better than (say) Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, where you can recruit your first girlfriend Odessa for your ship, and see her there subsequently, but with no further story or dialog.

If anything I’d love to have more of that. One of the cool things about Mass Effect 1, or Fallout New Vegas, is that your current companion would comment in various locations. It’d be neat if you could get Judy’s opinion on River, or on other situations. Or if you could take her out now and then.

Finally, one more gameplay complaint: the damn Relic Malfunctions. I get it, V is sick, and they want to remind you, in case the Johnny hallucinations weren’t a strong enough hint. But they invariably do this in the easy-ass way of taking control from you and shoving you into a cutscene.

How else could you do it? One way would be to add some intermittent or persistent debuffs. E.g. less health or stamina, or a slowed walking speed. Maybe you could get these back up with drugs, or counter them with new implants. I don’t necessarily like sanity metrics and other ways of impeding the player (I hated the malaria in Far Cry 2), but if it’s manageable it would add an interesting mechanic.

Cyberpunk 2077 done

I finished the game. I rushed through bits of it, kept complaining a lot, but I’ll also miss it now that it’s over.

I’m not going to avoid spoilers, so finish the game first if that’s important to you. See my initial and midgame thoughts here.

First, a pretty picture…. one of the best moments in the game, a sunrise in the Nomad camp. I didn’t capture it well, sorry.

Good news first: the story only gets stronger. I feel like I did three romance quests, though only one was a romance: Judy, Panam, and River. (I never met Kerry, the fourth choice.) All three are pretty involved– several missions each. Kind of weird: even though I didn’t romance two of them, they felt like they were written as romances anyway. There’s a point where you spend the night with Panam, and have the chance to touch her thigh… from walkthroughs, I know this is a trigger for the actual romance. I didn’t try it, because I’m loyal to Judy, dammit. I also had to let River down softly… sorry dude. But hey, never get involved with a cop. Besides, it seemed like trouble if this was, like, the first time he’d ever let himself have any emotions. Also, I kinda wanted an option to point out that I was already involved.

But it’s cool, because these were all intense stories that left me feeling close to the characters. And Panam is one fucking good pal to have. If you’ve played the game, you’ll see the above shot and know that I took the Panam ending… the only good one, so far as I can see.

As for Judy… well, the girl is cute as hell, also a little messed up and I hope I know what I’m doing. But her last mission…

This is the best mission in the game, bar none. And it’s really simple. Judy takes you diving. (There’s a clue in her apartment that she’s into that, but I didn’t see it at the time.) What she wants to show you is… her childhood town, which is buried under a lake. There’s a little anti-corpo message there, but it’s mostly just a quiet, atmospheric mission where you swim around after Judy, learn more about each other, and end up in bed together.

I’ve heard some complaints about the sex scenes in C77, but really, it’s not bad. Not perfect, but compare them to (say) Dragon Age Origins, where the sex was ludicrous. This one wasn’t perfect, but it was comparable to an R-rated scene in a movie, and managed to be sexy rather than cringe.

And look at that picture… Judy has a really great smile.

Perhaps because the creators are Polish, the overall tone of the game is bittersweet. You don’t defeat everyone and retire in glory, as you would in an American game. None of the romance stories end really well: Panam’s leaves her and the clan leader still bickering; River gets fired; Judy’s takeover of Clouds gets fucked up. The main quest is the same. You can’t destroy Arasaka, though you can give it a solid blow. You can get rid of Johnny, but all you get is a reprieve: V has only a few months to live. But with the Panam ending, you feel you have a chance. Maybe we’ll find out in DLC whether that pans out.

One nice bit: you can use Judy’s apartment after you hook up. You can find her there and have an extra conversation, which is nice. This is typical of the game: there is way more effort put into optional dialog than in most games. And it pays off: most of the characters end up feeling like people rather than plot points, and a lot of the endgame is actually rather affecting.

I skipped a lot of side gigs, as well as all the pointless cruft (finding Johnny’s old gear, buying cars, most of the tarot cards, the million NCPD side quests). The side quests (besides the romances) were hit-or-miss anyway. I liked Delamain; the pet tortoise was cute; the Peralezes made a nice portrait of paranoia in the upper crust but was a little skimpy; Lizzy Wizzy was kind of dumb. (Good idea, but too rushed, and the all-metal body thing seemed to be made for the art book– it didn’t add anything to the game.)

The gameplay and level design never really improve. I did get a four-slot cyberdeck, which helped, but it never felt like I could cyberpunk my way through a mission. I could never afford a better deck, which seems like a poor design decision: how am I doing the final missions without being a dangerous cyberfiend? Insultingly, they even make the final mooks immune to hacking.

I got the monofilament, which was OK, and I got a nice sniper rifle, which finally allows you to one-shot enemies, though at the cost of a long reload. My most powerful weapon was still a knife.

I can see now where they put their years of development time. One: animations. Look around in the game: almost every scene has custom animations, probably mocapped. How many hours did Keanu spend leaning on things? Two: cars. There are something like two dozen cars you can buy, if you can find the eddies.

I didn’t buy any, because driving is even worse than the combat. Once more, for any game designers reading this: WASD sucks for driving a car. Let us use the mouse. Play Borderlands if you can’t imagine how to do it. If you do insist on WASD, don’t make the damn cars fishtail so much that it’s hard to make the slightest turn, and don’t punish us for your poor control scheme by sending the police after us when we inevitably crash into things. I used Jackie’s Arch almost exclusively, since it seemed easier to control than any of the cars.

Some thoughts on Night City itself. I recommend taking some time to walk around in one of the busy areas, like a shopping district. Gawk at the weird outfits, catch some conversations, check out the ads. In some ways Saints Row III did better at being a city: having actual attractions, distinct-feeling neighborhoods, side quests that were fun to run into, stores you could enter. But C77 is certainly good at evoking a busy dystopian cityscape. Part of it is just the sheer number of people… in contrast with (say) Mass Effect or Fallout New Vegas, they can now render enough NPCS to make a nightclub look boppin’.

Finally, if you’re worried about bugs… it’s actually quite playable now, after the last patch. (Though I do have a new computer.) What they can’t patch away is the poor combat and level design, but at least I can tell people now that the story does get better.

Cyberpunk 2077: More thoughts

After my first bad reactions, and after playing about 18 hours, I’ve reached a truce with Cyberpunk 2077. I think I understand my feelings better now: the story is pretty good, and often fascinating. The gameplay sucks.

Now that’s a stylin’ V, right? Right?

To mitigate this, I’ve a) lowered the difficulty, and b) grabbed a big frigging katana. I don’t know why, but my guns do about 150 dps while melee does over 300. That makes the combat go way faster.

What’s wrong with the gameplay?

  • It’s mostly guns. I was expecting cyberpunk.
  • There isn’t anything interesting about its guns. Borderlands knows how to make pew-pew interesting; C77 doesn’t.
  • The enemies are dull. Didn’t these guys make the Witcher games? Monsters are interesting; mooks are not.
  • The hacking continues to suck. I guess I need a new cyberdeck with more slots, so I’ll work on that. There’s very little to do and all it does is put off the gunplay a little.
  • The levels and powers aren’t designed for stealth. (They’re too small, there are no places to get back into stealth, there are too few takedown options.)

It frustrates me whenever I think about it, because there’s no lack of better models. You could stealth ‘n hack your way through Deus Ex. For basic stealth, see Assassin’s Creed Odyssey; for advanced stealth, the Arkham or Dishonored games. Or hell, for interesting hacking look at Gunpoint.

But yeah, I can get through the combat now at least. The stories are variable, but are often a lot more involving and well-written than they have to be. As one example, tracking down Evelyn Parker, I had to buy a session with a sex worker. (I think these people are still human, but heavily modified?) Sounds cheesy, right? But it’s not what you expect (e.g. there’s no sex). It actually turns into a heavy psychotherapy session for V.

Another: I’m tracking down rogue cabs for Delamain, an AI who runs a cab company. Again, this sounds like the sort of collectibles mission you’d get in Saints Row. But each rogue cab has gone astray in its own way, so each one is an interesting surprise.

One more: Jackie, your partner from Act I, gets an ofrenda from his mother. They put quite a lot of work into this, with no gameplay at all, and it works pretty well. It would have worked better if there’d been more opportunity to get to know Jackie, but it’s still a surprising amount of depth to add to one NPC.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have story complaints. In general, I have the same issue as with the main storyline of Borderlands 3: the writers often think they’re far more edgy and fascinating than they are. I get a little tired of the endless gallery of tough-guy gangsters and fixers. The whole idea of black market braindances is… I dunno, probably realistic but way more grotesque than it has to be.

I understand that they’re trying to do a dystopia here. But I feel like they’re not always clear on the difference between exotic and outrageous. One example: at one point you meet a doctor named Fingers. He’s obviously intended to be a piece of work– after all, he sold Evelyn to sleazy braindance producers. But they seem to want to express this by coding him as gay and dressing him in a collar and shorts and a mesh shirt.

This isn’t characteristic of the game as a whole (where, after all, there are gay and lesbian romance options and your character can dress as absurdly as you can manage). But, I dunno, it seems like a step backwards from, oh, Zimos in Saints Row 3… who’s an absurd pimp but also your homey and useful supporter. I just wish the game designers had more room in their heads for the idea of “weird but also cool.”

But anyway, I want to at least get that romance with Judy, so I’ll keep going. (I’m still not too enamored of Keanu, but at least he’s not punching me any more.)

Minecraft Islands

I could write about the coup attempt… it turns out the one thing that will make Republicans maybe turn on Trump is if he sends a mob to attack and kill them, who knew? But you’ve probably heard all about it, so I feel like talking about Minecraft.

A streamer played something that looked interesting– a Minecraft mode called Islands. It’s not a mod, it’s a world generation option. You get floating islands in the void, all one biome. It’s kind of like Skyblock but you can do actual mining. Here’s my base; you can see some of the islands as well as my attempt to make it look like the Nether.

Since it’s only the Plains biome, there’s a lot of stuff missing… you can’t even get clay, sand, or most types of tree. The islands don’t extend down far enough to get diamonds. On the other hand, you can pick up some exotic materials from wandering traders. Although the single biome is a little dull, the restrictions, and the fear of falling in the void, make it pretty interesting. (The Nether is normal.)

The pool was my first really big project. It’s quite deep, probably 15 to 20 blocks. Unfortunately it doesn’t generate squid or dolphins, though it’s an excellent source of Drowned.

I just finished the ziggurat today. It looks quite nice from the inside:

Actual ziggurats were, perhaps disappointingly, not hollow. But a hollow one is easier to build and has an interesting interior. Note that every block has nothing below it: I had to place each block on a temporary scaffolding block, and then remove the scaffolding.

I lucked out with this world, I think: I spawned pretty near a village, and not far from a ruined portal.

One of the curiosities of the Island mode is that deep mines– the ones with railroads, cave spiders, etc.– still generate, but below the islands. So they just hang there, all visible, in the void. Likewise strongholds. Villages often generate partly or wholly down in the void too. I found a lone cleric villager in one, but when I checked later to rescue him he was gone, poor thing.

What next? Not much, perhaps… I may have done everything worth doing. I may just wait till the Caves update is done and try a regular world again. Also I’d better see how V is doing. (People have told me the game gets better after the Heist chapter.)

Cyberpunk 2077: first disgruntled thoughts

I started Cyberpunk 2077 and I’m not far into it, just 9 hours. I’ve looked forward to this game for a long time– maybe too much, because it doesn’t seem to be what I was expecting. So far I’m not enjoying it much, but I hope it gets better. (Feel free to tell me if it does!) I haven’t played enough to call this a review; mostly I want to get my initial reactions down.

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First, the infamous bugs. I just got a new computer, because the old one was having disk problems. This definitely improved performance, though last night I noticed weird graphics glitching (trees from the distance weren’t getting culled). But nothing has really got in the way. I got stuck in cyber mode a few times, but learned that this isn’t a bug, just undocumented– you hit Caps Lock to get out.

The good things: it looks great. It’s very… cyberpunky. It’s certainly everything I wanted visually. The basic setup. Some neat characters, like Judy.

The bad things: everything else. I’m just going to go through my notes and complain. Note that there are spoilers for The Heist here.

1. The goddamn cutscenes. The Heist– the big mission that sets up the basic game predicament– is a bunch of short on-rails action sequences and one damn cutscene after another. It’s the sort of thing that makes me think CDPR forgot they were writing a game; they wanted to make a movie instead. 

An example: at one point you are guiding a little robot through rooms in a skyscraper. This could have been enormously exciting: navigate foot-high vents, wait for guards, solve minor puzzles, whatever. Instead, it’s literally divided up into rooms, where the big puzzle is “Use detective vision to find the next vent.” There is only one vent (or other objective) to find, and you don’t even get to pilot the robot.

Later on they give up on even this level of interaction. You just get one cutscene after another. At best you get a few dull dialog choices to make.

2. Combat is boring yet difficult. Enemies are bullet sponges– one website claims that a headshot at close range with a pistol removes 1/4 of the health bar. Whuh? I guess Borderlands 3 is like that, but in BL3, shooting pretty much is the gameplay and they’ve made it fun. In C77 it’s more like “you must eliminate these mooks before we’ll dole out more story.” And I dunno, is the heart of cyberpunk “shooting mooks with a pistol”?

3. Yet when you briefly play Johnny Silverhands, you can mostly one-shot enemies. I get that they wanted to tell the story at that point and not impede it with really
difficult mooks… but as I say, the entire mission is on rails, so in the rest of it they did want to impede the story with mooks.

4. Where is the damn ammo? I am probably missing obvious sources, but I ran out of ammo during the Heist missions, and yes, I did look for ammo boxes. Why doesn’t
picking up enemy guns give you ammo, as in every other game? Note that you’re absolutely screwed without ammo; luckily I was almost at the end and could just run to the elevator.

5. Yet again, this is a game with stealth where stealth doesn’t seem to be a viable option. Did CDPR play the Arkham games (they must have, see below) or Dishonored? Your options are wimpy, things like give an enemy a little shock, or blind them for a few seconds. You can disable someone from behind, but the levels are tiny, so the Arkham/Dishonored strategy of carefully observing enemies and taking them out one by one is rarely possible. And your “quickhacks” are severely limited: in effect, you can maybe use them for the first two of the dozen enemies you face in a level.

6. You get level-ups, but they seem to be hardly worth it: things like “increase crit chance by 1%.”

7. The Keanu thing, ugh. So you get a hallucination of Keanu in your head, who apparently is able to physically punch you, and also wants to take over your brain. This is… the plot of Arkham Knight. At least Joker was amusing.

8. An earlier mission makes a big deal of “braindances”, interactive memories. And there hasn’t been another one since. If it’s a device that’s used only rarely, they expended way too much effort on giving them a complicated UI. And it’s still basically “use detective vision to find the colored interactable objects.”

9. Like many others, I want to see my V. Supposedly they did first person view for “immersion”, but I find it less immersive. I want third person as an option, at least.

10. The grimdark. I guess it comes with the territory, but cyberpunk shouldn’t just be noir, it should have some sort of added futuristic grotesquerie. The game doesn’t feel like a Gibson novel, it feels like Grand Theft Auto. Everybody talks like a gangster, the story relies a little too heavily on killing your pals, and not even the villains seem to be having fun.

11. The intro sequences are another huge missed opportunity. You pick a background and get maybe half an hour of distinct gameplay, then you’re given a freaking
montage of Moving Up in Night City with Jackie.

I understand that choices have to be made when making a huge game. But this is a strange and bad choice. Being a near-helpless noob is an awesome narrative opportunity. The Fallout and Elder Scrolls games get this: the first ten levels, when you don’t know what you’re doing and every enemy is weird and ammo and health are scarce, are the best parts of the games. It would have been great to explore the city, take on side quests, learn what the bewildering build options are for, scrounge for beds till you get the reward of Your Own Hovel. Instead, you’re apparently an established minor mook with your own place. It feels like this whole part of the game was rushed, in order that they could do… what? I don’t even see the tradeoff gains, though surely they’re out there.

12. Speaking of your own place… V’s is boring. Contrast e.g. Adam Jensen’s apartment in Deus Ex, which is a master class in environmental storytelling. There is almost nothing to do in V’s place, nothing that distinguishes her from the NPCs, apparently no customization options. The only things it offers are a place for checking your mail, a vending machine, and a mirror, all of which could easily have been provided elsewhere.

13. While the main mission is on rails, the open world is provided essentially without any guide. I’m not as enamored of open worlds as I once was. Apparently you can do things like find all of Keanu’s old gear, which sounds about as fun as collecting CD-ROMs in Saints Row 2. Which are the fun side missions? I shouldn’t have to consult websites for this.

14. I’m really uncomfortable with the treatment of Japan. There was some of this in Gibson and Stephenson, but I didn’t get this sense of othering from them. There’s a CEO? yakuza leader? who talks like a samurai, wears samurai robes, has a rebellious son, and talks about Americans as “barbarians”… I mean, jeez, maybe you could get away with this in 1975, but does CDPR think this is how Japanese corporations work today? (It’s the American CEO, not the Japanese, who is likely to be an unquestionable despot.)

15. A minor point, but characters sometimes harrass you if you’re not addressing the main task. This is extremely annoying if, e.g., you’re searching for the one goddamn interactable object in the vicinity.  

Related: I ran into some cops hassling someone.  All three had interaction symbols over them… but I couldn’t seem to get into position to see how to use them, and when I got near the cops got aggressive. Did they do playtesting at all?  (When Valve used to make games, this used to be something they were excellent at. You were never confused in a Valve game except at points you were supposed to be confused.)

16. The city is often on multiple levels– cool!– but the wayfinding does not take account of this– annoying! 

What would I have liked instead? I’m not sure, but my major changes would be:

  • More expansive levels– comparable to a Dishonored level– where staying in or regaining stealth would be a viable strat.
  • A slower start that really builds up your experience in Night City.
  • Way less emphasis on guns. I haven’t played Watch Dogs, but maybe CDPR should have? I think “corridors filled with gun-toting mooks” should have
    been stricken from the level designers’ toolkit.
  • Tell the story with gameplay. If you can’t do that, maybe your story needs work.

If that would be hard to do… make the game smaller. I would rather have a smaller number of well-crafted levels than a huge number of half-assed ones.

Edit: Thoughts later on; final thoughts on finishing.