games


I’m both early and late to this party: Kentucky Route Zero came out in 2013, but it’s an episodic game and 4 of 5 episodes are out. The last one should be out, oh, any day now.

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On a magic realist tour, always stop for the music

It’s a weird little game, though if you started with Grim Fandango, threw in some García Marquez, and marinated it in Southern Gothic, you’d end up about here. It’s mostly text adventure, but it makes effective use of some evocative, beautiful visuals. It largely tells a tale rather than letting you shape it, but your choices affect your experience immensely. And everything, from tone to which character is the protagonist, is subject to change.

The basics: you start out playing a truck driver named Conway, who gets lost trying to deliver a shipment of antiques. He stops off at a gas station and learns that the address he’s looking for is more or less in neverland– it’s on the titular Route Zero, an underground highway that you can’t get to by normal means. He’s sent on an increasingly bizarre quest to find the entrance to this highway.

Along the way he picks up a very motley crew of other strange loners: Shannon, a girl he finds in an abandoned mine; a boy named Ezra who hangs with a giant eagle and whose parents have disappeared; Junebug and Johnnie, traveling musicians who happen to be robots, though no one is gauche enough to hassle them about it; Cate, who runs a tugboat along an underground river and also serves as a midwife. We end up learning quite a lot about each of them and their predicaments.

A lot of fantasy is empowerment fantasy. Not here. Magic realism is a sort of inversion of Samuel Beckett: ultimately the universe is bleak and tragic, but damn if we aren’t going to have some fun along the way. The story of KRZ is full of terrible things: a flooded mine, unscrupulous corporations, infuriating bureaucracies, debt, decay, and medical emergencies. Against all this, there’s only friendship, kindness, and music. The story hints that Conway has a tendency to look for escape in a bottle. But there’s other kinds of escape, even if only momentary, like the sudden dizzying pans or zooms in KRZ’s visuals where you realize that the flat-seeming images are really 3-D modeled.

There are a lot of references to other works… let’s just say that very few of the names in the story are random. It’s not intrusive, though, just a nod to fellow travelers.

I mentioned Grim Fandango as being closest to what KRZ is like as a game.  You don’t really have the puzzles, however, or the hope of a happy ending. (We’ll see. I hope at least someone in the story gets one.) You make choices, almost always by choosing a line of dialog.

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OK, not a fascinating choice, but it’s the only screenshot I had that showed choices.

I’ll warn you right now: it seems like your choices don’t impact the overall story at all. (But we’ll see when Act 5 comes out.) You get about the same story in the same order no matter what you do. And yet the choices aren’t meaningless; they’re a low-key form of roleplaying. You can choose to be distanced, or empathetic. You can intensely pursue your quest goals, or you can accept digressions.  You can define some of the characters’ pasts and how they feel about them.

In some ways the game, without redefining the basic idea of a dialog tree, makes it work better than almost any other game. The big Bethesda and Bioware games almost always give you three basic options: be nasty, be helpful, or don’t get involved. The choices here may not be highly consequential, but they’re generally all reasonable, at least.

The story opens out quite a bit in Act 4, where you’re travelling on Cate’s tugboat, making various stops. At each one you choose which character you want to follow. So here you can really only get half the story, though apparently (I haven’t tried replaying it) you get hints of what happened in the other branch.

Oh, a warning that might avoid some surprised swearing: the game has three save slots, but it doesn’t remember which one you used last. I thought it hadn’t saved my progress at one point, but it had– I just had to choose the right save slot.

Will you like it? Well, if your idea of a game is “shoot all the things”, maybe not. I think it has its longueurs; on the other hand, I’m eager to see how it all comes together in Act 5. For the most part it’s aiming at a particular strain of melancholy, leavened by some comedy and bemused folksiness (none of the characters quite knows what’s going on, though some are less troubled by this than others). Mostly it hits its marks.

Sometimes it’d be nice if it really gave into the weirdness, gave you some of the exhilaration of parts of (say) Edith Finch. But that would probably spoil the quieter bits, which you’d rush through to get to the set pieces. This is a game where some strangers bonding over mushroom hunting (next to an underground river), or deciding whether or not to talk to the dog in the straw hat, are as important as pursuing Conway’s increasingly unlikely delivery.

 

 

 

 

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I’ve been revisiting Conan Exiles again since it left Early Access. It’s definitely way improved, and worth trying out if you like survival games.

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Somebody looked at a bunch of reference pics of Indian/SE Asian temples

First, what’s different?

  • The map is way bigger. (Also, the in-game map is actually useful now.)
  • Combat is revamped; there are multiple actions, and a punishing stamina meter.
  • Animals have been redistributed (for some reason).
  • A lot of the crafting is different. In general there are more things to build.
  • There are a fair number of interesting locations, side quests, and boss monsters.
  • I’m probably forgetting a lot. There are more religions, for instance, and they’ve added a climbing mechanic, and achievements, and pointers (in lieu of a tutorial).
  • You can actually meet Conan in game.
  • Many of the things I complained about in the first review are fixed; e.g. you can loot enemies now.

Now, I still have no interest in PvP.  I think Exiles might be a great co-op game, but I don’t have any friends who play. So I’m evaluating it as a single-player game.

As such, it’s an interesting, kind of weird experiment. I’ve put about 130 hours into it, so I’d say there’s plenty of fun to be had.  It also falls short in some also weird ways.

Why is it weird? Well, mostly because it’s so undirected. This is the exact opposite of games that have a voice in your ear telling you what to do next, and puts map markers all over so you know where to go. Besides the new pointers (things like “catch a fish”), there is no direction at all. You could easily miss all the more interesting locations and monsters; you have to go in search of them.

Which is a really interesting design decision! Most games, though treating you as The Prophesied One, don’t trust you to know how to have fun on your own. Exiles relies on normal curiosity: what’s in that big temple? where does this river go? what new resources might live in the jungle?

Also, the map is immense, and large parts of it are nearly empty. This is unusual too: Skyrim, say, is also huge, but it’s dotted with dungeons and towns and in general feels unnaturally full. The Exiled Lands feel big. There are long lonesome vistas, and you can easily get lost.  I have two main bases, which aren’t far apart on the map, but it’s a fair walk to get between them. I like this; it really gets past the usual video game convention that a tiny tiny area stands in for an entire city or wilderness.

(Of course, the huge area is there for people to fight over on multiplayer servers. But it gives a particular feeling to the single-player game.)

So what do you do?  Well, survival, combat, building, thralls, and monsters.

As a survival game, well, it’s not really hard. You have hunger and thirst, and you start in the desert… but you’re a short walk away from a freshwater river. You can subsist on slugs and bugs if you like, but you can quickly make stone weapons and kill and cook animals. You very quickly get to the point that you have way more food than you can eat. About the only tricky bit is making sure you have enough water if you take a long trek to explore.

Combat involves four basic actions: light and heavy attacks, block with a shield, and dash-evade. All of these take stamina, and you have to kite your opponent frequently while your stamina rebuilds. The blocking isn’t very satisfying, especially as shields break easily, but maybe I’m just not good at it. You can make combos by alternating light and heavy attacks.  It’s not that I don’t like it, but, well, it’s not great. It’s no Arkham, or Bayonetta. (Funcom, if you’re listening, here’s one idea that’d make it far better: reward successful combos with stamina.)

Building: I like that you can get started with nothing but trees and stones. You can quickly build a mini-base in a new territory. (Getting up on a foundation block is useful in avoiding combat, especially useful at night.) You can go really far with this, building increasingly elaborate castles.

The problem here, I think, is balance. If you really want to build a castle, it will take a shitload of resources. And the finer tiers of building material require multiple crafting cycles of their own: mine ironstone, turn it into iron bars in a furnace, make “steelfire” from tar and brimstone, make steel bars from iron and steelfire, make steel reinforcement rods, make brick from stone, finally put it together into building pieces. Plus, this all requires several different crafting stations.

Empyrion did this right: make building easy enough that you can easily construct ginormous spaceships and bases, only going out now and then for more ores. That’s how you get huge interesting buildings. Exile’s process is just way too tedious.

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Queen of all I survey 

But, there’s a solution– cheat! Excuse me: use the admin menu.  I try to only half-cheat: I only build things that I know the recipe to. Some huge portion of that 130 hours consisted of banging on rocks and trees; it’s OK for awhile, but I’m kind of tired of it now. So the admin menu allows me to build a nice base and go play the fun parts of the game.

One of the advertised features is thralls. You can knock out a human NPC instead of killing them, drag them to your base, and break them on a “wheel of pain”– a kind of millstone they have to push around till they’re docile. Then you can move them to a crafting station to speed it up and add recipes. Some thralls can fight for you, or dance for you… which turns out to be the only remedy for fighting “corruption”, a magical disease that saps your health, acquired in certain ruins.

Interesting idea, but again kind of tedious to really take advantage of solo. The problem is, most settlements consist only of fighters, and for the crafting stations you need specialists. So it may take quite a few raids to find the one you want. Plus it takes a long time to break thralls, which slows the process down. At least I found a dancer this playthrough, so I’m not pissed at the corruption thing.

Finally, monsters. These are basically your side quests, the rewards for finding the really interesting locations. They are unfortunately balanced for multiplayer games– they are huge HP buffers and take forever to whittle down; but they drop the better loot. Honestly, I find it best to just cheat again and turn off damage. (Again, it’s a balance issue. When you die, you go back to your base, and you’d have to make your way to the monster again, who of course will have regenerated at full HP.)

There’s also bits of lore scattered around, and plants you can use to recolor your clothes, and there’s a town of non-hostile NPCs… at this point, in fact, I’m mostly interested in wandering around finding all the strange stuff they’ve put in.

There’s also a main quest, which is, in the spirit of the game, hidden. You’re trapped in the Exiled Lands by a metal bracelet. If you beat monsters and find certain items, then read the flavortext, you learn that you can put those items together to undo the bracelet. So, eh, you can do that if you want. Or you can just lord it over the Exiled Lands.

If you do like resource extracting, base building, and beating up animals and NPCs, it’s probably worth checking out. I’d just add that if you stick around the river in the south, you might get bored without, well, actually seeing what’s in the game. You have to kind of make your own goals in this game, but one of them should be to explore as much as possible. A lot of the game content is quite interesting, but it need to be sought out.

First, enjoy, if you can, this TF2/Overwatch comedy video thing.

When Overwatch came out, I said it was like TF3.  The similarities are obvious and deep. Yet it’s not a simple copy.

For one thing… you really can’t make a great game by slavishly copying another game. Cheesy imitations just make people want to go back to the original.  You can do the same genre, even use the same tropes, but if there’s enough talent involved it’ll be it’s own thing.

For another, the only thing that prevented Valve from making TF3 was Valve. Valve has lost its verve. They don’t seem to have any interest in innovating great new games, they’ve bled off their best writers, and their best idea for TF2 is basically “more of the same”.

And finally, let’s talk about differences between TF2 and Overwatch.

One: Valve humor is not Blizzard humor.  Valve’s humor is “everybody is dumb”– kind of like South Park.  It’s too cool for school; it doesn’t care about anything; every TF2 character is annoying and stupid. And that’s absolutely fine for a game! Their “Meet the…” series is brilliant, indeed far better than most of Blizzard’s videos. But their worldbuilding doesn’t go beyond “a pointless, endless battle between pinheaded idiots.”

Blizzard (at least in Overwatch, I’m not talking about its other properties) is almost painfully earnest. Though they have their comic elements, every Overwatch character is a hero, or a strangely appealing villain. As Tracer says, the world could always use more heroes. The backstory is full of drama and rivalry, and there’s a story about a human-omnic war that’s rather dark, but the overall tone of the game is still optimistic, even utopian.  And kind of by accident, it appeared just at a time when ironic detachment suddenly seemed tired and even suspect.

And the game wants the player to feel heroic, too. There are a lot of subtle things to downplay competition and feelings of loss, from the hiding of team stats, to the merging of kills and assists into eliminations, to the assembling of a personal highlights reel. Even the sound design cooperates: you hear your enemies squealing in pain as they die; you don’t hear the same sounds when you do.

Not unrelated is the commitment to diversity. TF2’s characters came from around, well, the Euro-American world.  All are men (which baffles me… Valve has endless energy for making hats and costumes, but can’t make female versions?).  Overwatch, unusually, has 13 male and 13 female characters, plus Bastion. Just 3 are American.  13 are non-white (counting Reaper as Hispanic). I don’t say they’re perfect at this, but they are putting effort into it.

Also worth noting: with all those characters, none are easily confused with each other, and they’ve taken enormous pains to make their silhouettes, voices, and animations distinctive and interesting.  If you play it, take some time to look at the first-person animations– the walks, the gun reloads, shooting. Each character is different, and everything reinforces their personality.

Also, I think Blizzard does so well at making its characters likeable that it’s easy to forget that this is not an easy thing at all. Disney, for instance, never quite got the knack: Mickey Mouse is just not interesting or likeable in the way Bugs Bunny is. A lot of TV characters are not really likeable, only amusingly grotesque, like the TF2 characters.

The TF2 aesthetic is absolutely stunning– for 2007. It looks wan and repetitive next to Numbani, Lijiang Tower, or Junkertown.  This is to be expected with nine years between them.  But again, Valve could have reimagined their game themselves in that time, and chose not to.

The simplicity of the weaponry (most characters can’t change guns) combines with the idea of ults to make the gameplay seem quite different from TF2. Teams are maxed out at six, and don’t allow multiples of one character, while TF2 teams can be as high as 12. All this focuses the game quite a bit.  In TF2, half the players can treat the game as deathmatch most of the time, and it doesn’t matter much. Overwatch requires a higher commitment to the objective, such that you really notice if your Hanzo or Widowmaker is indulging themselves rather than actually making their shots.

And precisely because teams are smaller, and characters can’t be doubled up, you can’t just turtle up, which was the strategy much of the time in TF2. If Blizzard studied TF2, surely one of the conclusions they came to was “don’t let the turrets dominate the game.”

Plus, the two dozen characters make for far more interesting choices, as well as the constant expectation that Blizzard will shake everything up with a new character. I think TF2 made it far easier to slip into a comfort zone– e.g. I mostly played Pyro and Soldier. I have more range in Overwatch, though perhaps not enough, as many rounds of Mystery Heroes have demonstrated.

Finally, there’s the whole Overwatch League thing.  I’ve found these high-level matches pretty interesting.  TF2 now has ranked play, but I’m not sure how well it’d work as an e-sport.  Again, the turtling and the omnipresent snipers make it difficult for teams to coordinate a strategy.

None of this is to disparage TF2, which I played with great enjoyment for, omigod, like eight years.  It’s a great game!  But Overwatch has surpassed it, for me at least.

 

 

 

 

I actually picked this up when it came out, but never finished it.  And I still haven’t, but I’m playing it again, and I’m almost done, so I’d might as well write a review.

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I sure hope there’s a zipline so I can get down there

Re-reading my review of the reboot, I’m struck by how many things I didn’t like that they’ve now fixed:

  • Basically no Quicktime events. (There are a few “run away across a collapsing building” scenes, but they generally use moves you’ve mastered anyway.)
  • Not as many cutscenes in general. You mostly get to control your own camera!
  • No gallery of ‘friends’ who do nothing to help and are there mainly to get in trouble and/or get killed.
  • No snotty ‘friend’ who’s set up as the obvious betrayer.  (There is a betrayer, but they provided a plausible motivation this time.)

Almost all of the game is set in Siberia, looking for the lost city of Kitezh. Now, Kitezh is a city from Russian folklore which supposedly resisted the Mongol invasion by slipping into a lake.  A Rimsky-Korsakov opera has it becoming invisible instead.  Also it’s supposedly near Nizhny Novgorod, which is not in Siberia.

Whatevs. Here it’s founded by Byzantines, who’ve come from Syria, led by their Prophet, who seems to have the secret of eternal life.  An evil cult named Trinity wants this, and so does Lara Croft, but in a much nicer way.

On the plus side:

  • It’s really pretty; the mountains and the forests and the various ruins are very well done.
  • It has much bigger areas to explore, and you’re able to mess around all you like. (There were some small hubs in the first game, but there wasn’t much to do in each one, and the plot was always hurrying you on.)
  • I like Lara’s voice actress, Camilla Luddington. There’s much less character development this time, so most of the work of making Lara likeable comes down to the voice acting, and Luddington makes her sound earnest and concerned. OK, that may sound dull, but compare that to your basic space marine, who usually sounds indifferent and/or bombastic.
  • There is less emphasis on “hard enemies which mess with what you’ve learned so far”, which is fine by me. E.g. you have armored enemies, but you also have some good options against them.
  • The basic gameplay loop is fun.  Sneak around, shoot arrows or bullets at people, solve some physics puzzles, do some mild parkour. Everyone who’s passed through Kitezh– Trinity, the Byzantines, the Mongols, the Soviets– is fond of leaving ruins which can only be traversed with Lara’s particular gear– climbing pick, rope arrows, etc. Some places even give you a choice of route!

Honestly the open world aspect can be wearing.  There are optional tombs scattered around– you’d might as well do as many as you can, since they offer perks. There are challenges and optional missions and resources to pick up and animals to hunt and relics to find and… well, if you like that sort of thing, there’s a lot of it. The first time I played the game, I put it aside halfway through, and I think it’s because of all this cruft. I feel like I should do everything, but it becomes a chore.

I’m enjoying it more now, mostly because I’ve given myself permission to skip anything I don’t feel like doing. Anyway, in general, this isn’t a Bethesda game, where the main questline is the dullest of them all.  They put the most work into the main story.

On the minus side–

  • I don’t mind dying to enemies– the fights always seem fair, and if I die it’s my fault and it’s usually easy to see why.  But I hate dying because I missed a jump, especially if it has fiddly positioning or timing to it. The game doesn’t even have the excuse of Mirror’s Edge, that it’s about split-second button presses. Rather than falling to her death, Lara should recover, like Batman.  (You could make her repeat the last bit, if you want mistakes to have a cost.)
  • The plot idea of ‘vindicating Dad’ is far less interesting than the first game, which moved Lara from frightened young girl to badass warrior woman. Once she’s that badass, there’s little she really needs, so the emotional temperature drops a bit.

There’s another sequel coming out later this year, so I hope I’ve put Trinity down by the time it comes out.

Edit: Finished it tonight… I really wasn’t far from the end. The final boss fight isn’t terribly hard, which is also fine by me.

Though they lost the character arc from the first game, I think the story here is a lot more meaningful. The story in the first game is more or less “try to escape this extremely dangerous island which Lara’s dad for some reason wanted to get to.” Here, it’s all related to having the secret of immortality… it’s not any more believable, but at least you can see that it has big consequences which explain why everyone is after it.

 

 

 

Jeff Kaplan posted the most popular 10 characters for each tier of competitive, and I decided to make them into a nice chart.

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I’m mostly a D.va main, so it’s nice to know that pretty much everyone thinks she’s a good choice. I like playing Moira too; I’m kind of surprised she rates so highly.

It’s interesting to see the trends over skill levels. I guess if you can actually aim, it pays to play McCree rather than Soldier 76.

Hey, pubbies of the world: see where Hanzo and Widow appear on the chart?  That’s right, nowhere.

I can’t say I’ve truly explored the walking simulator genre, but I can say that What Remains of Edith Finch is the best so far. It’s deeply weird and beautifully done. I think I’d like it a lot better if it weren’t for the ending, but that’s true of a lot of games.

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You play as Edith Finch, returning to your family home after years being away.  And I don’t think this counts as a spoiler, because the Steam store page reveals it and also I think the game does in the first few minutes: your rather large extended family is all dead, and you’ll spend the game learning their stories.

(You never really see Edith, but charmingly, you can look down and see your body. And you occasionally see your hands. For some reason you sport knitted fingerless gloves. Kind of goth, but so is the game.)

This sounds a bit like Gone Home, and you do spend a lot of time listening to Edith’s reactions, but as soon as you explore the first family story– Molly’s– the game veers off in a different direction entirely.  You don’t just hear Molly’s story, you play it, and it’s a weird but exhilarating burst of magic realism.

And that’s kind of the note of the game. It’s really a set of macabre short stories, each told in a different but very inventive style. There’s plenty of environmental storytelling (each person’s room is highly personal and packed with personal items), but the game is constantly exploring new means of interaction. I usually feel I should warn people in reviews of offbeat games that you don’t get to shoot anything, but here you do.

I have some reservations, though I also have reservations about my reservations. I mean, it’s about death, and it’s sometimes appropriately sad or creepy, but it’s mostly about a theatrical, Edward Gorey version of death. And it’s absolutely OK to grieve at death and also laugh at it, but I’m not sure if the game knows which it wants to do. Sometimes it seems a bit flippant– the death of one more Finch feels like a punchline.

On the other hand, sometimes it gets just the right amount of poignancy, such as in the story of the cannery worker, Lewis.  (If you’ve played the game, and NOT BEFORE, read Pip Warr’s wonderful breakdown of how this amazing sequence works and how the developers struggled to make it work.)

Also, as I said, I don’t like the ending.  (Mouseover to read.)  The deaths of Edith’s mother and Edith seem rushed and gratuitous. There’s nothing edgy or macabre or interesting about killing off the player character; it just seems mean. It left a bad taste in my mouth; and yet it’s literally the last few minutes of the game; they could have left it out and greatly improved the game.)

One more note: it’s short, about two and a half hours. (If $20 seems steep for that, wait for the next Steam sale…)

In gameplay and storytelling, I think people will be mining Edith Finch for years.  “Wait, we can tell a story in games without just relying on audiologs and picking up props?”

 

 

 

 

Two game things.  One, if you’ve already read Concerned and you’re caught up on Freeman’s Mind 2, check out Robert Yang’s playthrough of Half-Life 2 concentrating on level design.

Yang actually teaches level design, and he was one of the creators of the HL1 remake Black Mesa, so he knows what he’s talking about. He’ll comment on the layout of the rooms or levels, the texturing, how NPCs move around, how the level designer is making things easier or harder for the player, how eager Valve was to show off its physics engine, and so on. But he’s also just a friendly and fun guy, and I like how he gets sad over the death of a lone headcrab, or decides to carry a sentry gun as far as he can.

He’s gone through other games as well, including Half-Life 1 and Bioshock 1.

The other thing: you might also go pick up Gorogoa, a fun little puzzle game.  I heard about it from this RPS article about how it was put together, and it sounded fun.

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It’s all gorgeously hand-drawn, and it shows you from two to four pictures at one time.  All you do is move them about or zoom within them, but this turns out to be a surprisingly rich game mechanic.  Sometimes you find pictures that go together, and aligning them will join them (usually advancing the story). Sometimes a picture changes depending on its position.  Sometimes it has holes in it, and that lets you move it over another picture.

It’s short, but that’s fine– you won’t get tired of it.  And I can’t think of any other game that’s quite like it.

 

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