Farewell to Shamus

I’ve mentioned Shamus Young a few times. A couple of months ago I was shocked to read that he had died, of cardiac arrest, at the age of 50. I didn’t know him personally, so I can’t say much about him as a person, except that 50 is way too young! I knew him from his site, twentysidedtale, which is full of stuff related to programming and video games, and interesting enough to be permanently in my bookmarks bar. I thought the best tribute to him would be a little tour of things I liked.

If this is your first glimpse of his site, note that you may not escape for awhile. The dude wrote a lot. Grabbing links, I noticed how much I haven’t read. So check it out, this is by no means all the good stuff. There’s also podcasts and music and even a novel.pixelcity2_lighting7

Pixel City, Shamus’s procedurally generated city builder 

I first ran into his site with DM of the Rings, his retelling of Lord of the Rings as a D&D game… a game with flaky players, an incredibly pedantic DM, way too many orcs, and way too few opportunities to go into town to sell loot. It’s a brilliant idea and very funny, at least if you like both LOTR and D&D.

He then more or less extended the idea in Chainmail Bikini, with cartoon art this time (by Shawn Gaston). The idea was that this was the same DM and players from DM of the Rings, but a new campaign. Sadly, it petered out after about 50 strips, but it’s good D&D humor, and anyway Shamus will explain how it would have ended.

He also reviewed video games, in depth. In much depth. No, way more depth than that. This Mass Effect retrospective is in 50 installments. I kid, but if you like a game, it’s a pleasure to see it analyzed in detail, with attention to gameplay, art, and above all story. Shamus loved a good plot, and hated a bad plot, and would take all the time it needed to explain what went wrong. This element doesn’t bother me as much as it did Shamus, but it’s still interesting critical work; he’s pretty insightful about what does and doesn’t work and what a game can and can’t get away with. Other series of note: Arkham City; Saints Row 3, Jade Empire, Oblivion, Borderlands 2, Black Desert Online. And there’s more; I focused on games I’ve played, though I’ve also read through some of his entire series on games I never played, like Spider-Man.

He also made programming projects— they rarely turned into finished games (though Good Robot is an exception; you can buy it on Steam), but he knew what he was doing and his progress reports are fun. I liked his Pixel City project, his blocky world, and his terrain builder, among others.

I didn’t always agree with him on games, but his opinion was always interesting, and he was a kindred spirit, in terms of just putting out content on the web for years and years just because you want to. I’m sad that we won’t get his careful, acerbic dissection of future games.

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

I love the big dumb fun of Borderlands, so I picked this up as soon as it was on Steam. My friend Ash (an indispensable part of the series) and I just finished our second playthrough. It’s very Borderlandsly.

My relatively normal Spore Warden. Ash likes to randomize his appearance

First, the rapturous parts. BL2 had a D&D parody– Bunkers & Badasses– as a DLC, which turned out to be a big hit. Tiny Tina, the explosive(s) expert, turns out to be a great dungeonmaster… sorry, bunkermaster, and it just works to add a light fantasy overcoating to the BL formula– a very light coating, you still mostly use guns. Wonderlands expands the idea into a full game.

There are lots of quality of life improvements. You can customize your character’s appearance and sex; you can multiclass. The basic mechanic of examining loot and deciding what’s junk is pretty streamlined by now. Though the Gearbox formula for deepening encounters is always “add more monsters”, it’s never as out-of-control as in BL2; things are rarely overwhelming even in boss fights. Three classes at least add companions, and these can revive you– a nice touch since it’s easy not to notice if your co-op partner is down. As in BL3, you can either divvy up loot or let each player have their own uncontested stuff. The game doesn’t wait too long to give you your full gun slots, and it’s generous with ammo.

The game is extremely pretty… also it highly taxes my machine. They’ve toned down the hard-edged cartoony BL look: it could be almost any fantasy game, and has some really beautiful environments. (As something of a joke, the game has you blow up the ocean, which allows half the game to be set in a very unusual post-undersea environment, full of weird coral blocks and sunken ships.)

You can read guides on how to develop your character… but really, just put your stats where you feel like. I liked the classes with companions, but do what you think is fun. (Oh, and don’t bother with sniper rifles: the levels are rarely large enough to make them worth it.)

BL’s humor is always hit or miss– if one joke doesn’t land, maybe the next one will. Some of the best bits are direct parodies of the D&D situation– the game even provides you with two advisors, fellow players who don’t actually appear in your game but provide commentary and annoy Tina with their complaints and bickering. There are callbacks to previous games– e.g. Brick appears as the “Fairy Punchfather”, and Claptrap is there at his most annoying level. Some nice bits, in flashbacks, show how Roland taught Tina the game. Other quests are parodies of various fantasies from the Smurfs to the Witcher to Don Quixote… these are kind of Mad Magazine level at best, and interminable at worst. (The joke of the Witcher parody is that the Witcher is an insufferable jerk; the joke gets old fast.)

I was surprised to read in a review that some people find Tina herself annoying. I like her a lot, especially with Ashly Burch’s performance… she’s intended to be an over-the-top hypermanic teenager, and it fits that she is really obsessed with Bunkers & Badasses, and capricious as a DM.

The main quest is, well, also hit or miss. The villain, the Dragon Lord, sometimes talks to you– mostly to complain about Tina. He’s better than the horrible Calypso twins from BL3, but the story arc makes little sense. Spoiler:

He’s Tina’s own former character, turned into a villain, and he resents it and wants to take over. “NPC realizes he’s an NPC and resents it” would be a good one-off joke, but the artificiality of the concept makes it a big miss.

Now for the biggest complaint. You defeat the Dragon Lord, you get a big bunch of loot, and… that’s it. There is no True Vault Hunter mode: you can’t replay the game with your equipment and high level; the loot-and-shoot loop just shuts down. This is baffling and kind of enraging: didn’t they realize that that continuing loop is what makes BL what it is? The whole idea is to use your new loot for enhanced pew-pew. If anything this made the second playthrough more annoying, as toward the end you start to realize that the looting, grabbing coins, and levelling up wasn’t going to pay off any more.

I’ve put 66 hours into the game; I’d happily double that if there was a Vault Hunter mode. I’d also feel a little better about the $51 price. And that’s with a discount, it’s normally $60. I don’t feel like a third playthrough from scratch would add much.

And the second-biggest complaint: the levels are beautiful, but also repetitive. Too many encounters are just “enter a generic area and pew-pew everyone in it.” Instead of Vault Hunter mode, there’s a “Chaos Chamber” which is… one randomized encounter after another. Not the same thing, Gearbox. (We didn’t do any of the DLC, partly because they are apparently just more quick dungeons.)

Not quite a complaint: some side quests are really really long. Like, you get the four doohickeys, and then you need to get the five foobars, and then you get a boss fight. And then maybe another boss fight. It’s fine, a little unpredictability is good, but if nothing else, sometimes we’re starting to wrap up the evening and want to just knock out a side quest, and it takes an hour instead.

(I should add, if you play it, do explore the side quests; all of them are worth playing at least once, and doing them puts you in a much better place for the final boss fights.)

Now, in a lot of co-op games how much fun you have depends a lot on your co-op partner. My longtime BL partner is Ash; we are exactly on the same page in terms of how many loot chests we open, how much time to take messing with inventory, what side quests to do, what jokes to make along the way, etc. In short, try to play with Ash and you’ll have a good time.

Castle

I haven’t done a Minecraft report in awhile. I’m still playing in this world, though I’m eagerly awaiting 1.19. I’m pretty happy with this castle:

You may notice some blocks that look like lodestones, on the facade of the castle. They’re not lodestones; they’re map art. That’s great for posters and such, but it’s also very nice for decorative blocks. I tried the same idea before, but this came out much better.

The castle on the right isn’t entirely original– it’s inspired by the astonishing BDoubleO. The palace on the left is my design, based on a Renaissance palazzo. I’m not that happy with it, but I do like the contrast. In between the two buildings is a drop into an enormous cave. Here’s another view:

I mostly made this in creative mode. It’s nothing that couldn’t be done in survival, but it’s not like I have any Minecraft friends to impress, and it’s far easier to build very large structures in creative. Not only do you avoid the grind, but you can redo things. E.g. I built the palazzo in sandstone and granite, and decided that it looked terrible. It still takes plenty of time to make something nice… e.g. the map art alone took about three evenings.

Minecraft 1.18

I’ve been playing the 1.18 release for the last few weeks. If you haven’t played Minecraft for years, it’s worth checking out, because it completely revamps terrain generation. First, everything is a lot more vertical:

The world used to generate from level 0 to 256, with sea level at 62. Now it generates from -64 to 320. Mountains (and player builds) can go far higher, and of course caves go far deeper.

More spectacularly, caves are now far bigger. Also more varied, with dripstone caves, lush caves, etc. Just look at these things!

You can wander around in them for hours, and probably will, to gawk and to mine. A helpful hint: use Night Vision potions. The effect is shown above: without them, the caves are dark and scary. (Night Vision is brewed with water bottle + nether wart, then a golden carrot, then redstone dust. The latter increases the duration from 3 to 8 minutes. I take 9 potions on an expedition, which is more than an hour of caving. Bring shulker boxes, or if you haven’t defeated the dragon yet, an ender chest.)

You can still do branch mining– diamonds are now concentrated at level -59. But why bother? Mining efficiency depends largely on how much surface area is exposed at once, and simply walking through a cave will expose far more blocks than you can with mining.

One drawback to the new world generation, perhaps, is that biomes are now so large that it takes a lot of exploring to find some of the rare ones. One trick: find your world seed (type /seed in console) and make a new Creative world with it. In Creative, you can use /locatebiome to find a biome you need. I looked for a mesa biome for instance, for the cheap terracotta, and it was over 2000 blocks away from home.

You also have to watch where you walk a little more. A hole might drop you an immense distance now.

A Minecraft post wouldn’t be complete without sharing a pic of my base. Here it is so far:

This was the first picturesque mountain I found in the first hour or so. The chaotic contraption at left is a mob farm. I first tried a traditional mob farm (four arms with a water feed and a central drop), and it produced nothing. I’m not sure why, but probably there are so many mob spawn locations nearby that it was just bypassed. (My base is atop some of those huge caves.) This one has 10 floors, with an AFK spot far above, and it works pretty well.

One thing missing here: a village. I noticed that about 75% of the time in my last game, I would just stay in my village, grinding resources and trading, and I wanted to get out of that loop. It’d be nice to eschew villagers entirely, but I use them anyway to get spell books– as I need specific ones and in quantity, enchanting books is too slow.

Changing up your playstyle is nice– now I’m motivated to actually use the diamonds I mine, and you can get some pretty good gear even with 10-15 levels. I may have to figure out how to do an XP grinder though…. I’m spending a lot of time getting to level 30 so I can enchant something, and it’s kind of frustrating.

I still keep discovering things about the game. Quite by accident– I was decorating an alchemy building and thought a redstone torch next to a dragon head would be atmospheric– I found that when you power a dragon head, it animates, opening and closing its mouth. Neat!

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.