Player Empowerment

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One of the great things about gaming is that it can provide an escape from everyday life. Many gamers seek a feeling of being powerful and important. They want to feel badass and strong, often in contrast to their real life. Games often provide a power progression to give players a sense of improvement as they play. Even if the goal isn’t to provide a power fantasy for the player, having a tangible way to track progression, in the form of avatar skill, is a popular feature. Not every game uses or needs power progression (Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice and Overwatch, specifically, come to mind), but most games do have one. There are good and bad ways to do this, though.

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A problem I often see in power progression systems is making the player so powerful in the end game that the challenge disappears and the game becomes trivial. Bethesda is pretty bad at this. I encountered this in Skyrim and Fallout, but the worst I have experienced is Prey. It is a shame, because Prey is one of my favorite games of 2017 and by far my favorite horror game. Unfortunately, the suspense and uncertainly is trivialized by how powerful the player becomes at the end. When Mimics can be detected with a spectroscope and even the most powerful of Typhon melt underneath the Q-Beam, some of the suspense is gone. The Witcher 3 does this as well. There are so many side quests and optional content that is worth completing. If you complete even half of it, you will likely be far over leveled for the end game. Also, enemies do not scale with the player’s level, so after a while, most mobs littered around the map are trivial and not even worth the time to get off of Roach to fight them.

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Conversely, I would say that Divinity Original Sin 2 handles progressive challenge really well. As you level up, there is always an area or quest that is perfectly suited to be just barely within your ability. The only real walls that block off content, are simply difficulty walls. If you want to charge into the Blackpits at level 6, the game will let you, but you will certainly die. There are encounters and areas beyond your level that, if you are clever, you can access early to get some good higher level rewards, but it also doesn’t break the game, either. If you pick up a sword far above your level, you can use it, but your accuracy is much lower. You never feel too powerful or too weak.

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The ideal system, in my opinion, is to allow players to control their own difficulty, and I don’t mean game-wide, menu difficulty levels, but rather in-game mechanics that allow players to change their own difficulty. There are several excellent examples of this. Super Giant Games do this better than anyone else I have seen. There is an incredible amount of avatar and play style customization in their games, including ways to make the game more difficult. In Transistor, for example, there are limiters that you can install into your transistor. A limiter might increase the health of enemies, decrease Red’s speed, increase the number of bad cells created from enemies, etc. There is so much replayability in these games, partially because the player can make the game as difficult or easy as they wish. Dark Souls 2 has a few good player-controlled difficulty features as well. The Covenant of Champions allows you to play the game as New Game + difficulty. There are rings that limit the number of souls you receive. You can use Bonfire Aesthetics to fight bosses again at a higher difficulty, as well as repopulate the level with enemies.

Ultimately, I want everybody to get the kind of experience they want in games. Some want to feel powerful as they clear rooms of aliens in Doom. Some want to feel desperate, fearful and in danger as they creep through Prey or Resident Evil. I think that some games benefit from players feeling over or under powered, and that most benefit from being balanced. I have a lot of respect for games that can allow the player to customize a game to their own desires. I definitely support any game that increases player choice, especially on a matter where every player would have a different preference.

Open World Games

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When I was younger, I thought that open world games were the best. I would play GTA at friends’ houses and was blown away by the scale. I loved that you, as a player, could decide where to go and which order to accomplish objectives. I love games that offer more player choice. When I got a PS3, Infamous was probably my favorite game. The amount of time I spent gliding along power lines, shooting electricity from my hands and dominating Empire city one block at a time is ridiculous. I still think that having the freedom to explore the world at my own pace is a fantastic feature, but I also know that there are often serious problems with open world games.

When open world games are announced and they are described as massive play areas that will take dozens of hours to see everything I get excited at the possibilities but also wary of the quality of encounters in this massive space. I find that an open world is only as good as the content that fills it. If the world is mostly mostly empty space or filled with copy-paste encounters, rather than unique and varied content, then it is wasted space. I find that Bethesda games often do this. Skyrim, in particular, is massive, but has so much empty space and samey encounters. I never actually finished Skyrim because I modded to hell, making it crash every five minutes. I know that I could fix this issue by removing mods until I find the problem one, but I realized that I didn’t care enough. I had cleared enough Draugr crypts, bandit camps, Dwarf fortresses, and Thomas the Tank Engine…I mean dragon nests for a lifetime. There was a ton of great content in that game, but it felt like the unique and interesting content took up like 20% of the world, and the rest was wasted space. Fallout New Vegas, while I adore the game, suffers from this too. The map is much more manageable in size, but a lot of the Mojave is just desert. You may encounter a roaming band of Legionnaires or Bloat Flies, but that is rare. I do appreciate that nearly all, if not all, of the content in the game is excellent, though. I never finished Batman Arkham Knight (mostly because of all the terrible Batmobile combat and races), but I think that the scale was far too large for the amount of interesting content.

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There are games that do this extremely well, though. Keeping with the Bethesda theme, Prey does open world surprisingly well. The world, or space station in this case, is fairly small and contained, so every object, enemy and encounter is placed there for a reason. The game is open world, but it has the detail and care of scripted linear games. Not only is none of the space wasted, but the world evolves as you progress. The locations change visually, structurally, and there are new encounters. I don’t need a game world to be massive. I just want it to be populated and interesting. An aspect that I really like in open world games, that I wish was more common, is the ability to access areas and content far above the player’s current ability. The game has difficulty walls, rather than story or invisible walls to funnel players into the right path. Dark Souls, The Witcher 3, Fallout New Vegas, and Divinity Original Sin 2 do this very well.

Two other good examples are Horizon Zero Dawn and Batman Arkham City. The scale of these games are large, but not unmanageable. I found that in HZD, I was nearly always in some kind of encounter. The world was full of machines, tribal settlements, old world ruins and cultists. The locations without enemies, quests or cities were designed to be quiet moments to admire the beautiful world they had created. I never felt like there was wasted space. Arkham City is an excellent example of an open world game. It’s small enough to fill with interesting and different encounters, but large enough to feel like you are really in a city. I think its even more impressive because the map is urban, but doesn’t feel like every third building is copy-pasted. Arkham City also does a great job of making the player return to past areas in order to access new content. It’s a shame when a game never provides an incentive to return to old areas. I also think that Rocksteady did a great job of mixing collectibles, riddler challenges, easter eggs, and the various kinds of combat throughout the map. I want to give a quick honorable mention to The Witcher 3. I’m always heaping praise on that game, but I do think it deserves it. In this case their open world is amazing. It’s beautiful when it wants to be, bleak at other times. It is filled with content(though there are probably a few too many samey Witcher contracts) and nothing really feels like its there to fill space.

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Whenever I play a linear game like Uncharted, Wolfenstein, or Bioshock, I love the detail that the developers put into each level. Nothing is there just to fill space. Any building you can enter, corner you can turn down, or ladder you climb, leads to something you can pick up, interact with, or use. Every camera angle in Uncharted 4 is painstakingly designed. This kind of detail is infeasible in an open world game. While this isn’t a problem per se, it is something that I appreciate. I love to see a game that shows the care the developers put into it.

Ultimately, I think that open world is not an intrinsically good feature. It is just an aspect. The value of it, is entirely dependent on its implementation and usage. I’ve encountered many people who would point to a games world scale and length as a sign or evidence of a good game. I don’t think that it is an intrinsically good or bad feature. Like any other feature, it just informs the gameplay and nothing more.

UI: Has It Gone Too Far?

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Games are essentially the undertaking of conquering optional obstacles to accomplish an objective where all parties agree on the same set of rules. In order to accomplish this goal, the gamer needs to have enough information to know how to overcome the obstacles. This is usually accomplished through tutorials and the user interface. Information is necessary, but there is a point where the amount of information becomes too much. The more information on screen at one time, the less comprehensible the information becomes and eventually it’ll give the player sensory overload.

I have only played a few hours of the Diablo series over the years. I’ve always found grinding, exploring identical environments and sorting through piles and piles of loot to be tedious. I have a few friends who love the game and I have seen much more gameplay online. There gets to be a point in Diablo where you get to a high enough level that in order to create a challenge, the game fills the screen with dozens and dozens of enemies. I have found myself watching the gameplay and recoiling in horror at how the screen fills with damage numbers, particle effects, and so many enemies that they can barely move around for the collisions. The HUD also takes up half the screen, by itself, so I have no idea how anyone can understand what is happening in the game. It becomes completely incomprehensible. World of Warcraft can fall into this as well, especially with party raids.

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Ubisoft games are infamous for a lot of things, and UI clutter is one of them. Particularly in how they indicate locations in the world. Not only do icons constantly pop up on the screen, compass and minimap, but when you open the map in Assassins Creed or Far Cry, you are usually met with dozens and dozens of map icons flooding the map. It can be overwhelming and even hard to read the important information on the map. In an open world game, the player needs to know how to get around and where to go. If the UI is so overwhelming that it makes the basic information hard to decipher, then there’s a problem. The Witcher 3 and Horizon Zero Dawn, games that I adore, are also pretty bad about this, though not to the same level.

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I mentioned that Horizon Zero Dawn overpopulates the map, but the game does have a feature that I never knew I always wanted. There is an option in the menu to turn on Dynamic UI. When you are not in combat or using items, the HUD fades away and simply leaves the entire screen to the bare essentials and the amazing visuals of the game. I love that I can ride across the red rocks of Southern Utah on a robotic bull and watch enormous robotic creatures silhouetted against the sunset without a health bar and equipment obscuring the scenery. It’s a small detail, but I want every game to have this option from now on. I also want to talk some sugar about Nier Automata for a bit. That game does something I have never seen before. Since you play as androids, your UI is treated as software on your hard drive. You can uninstall sections of HUD to make room for other upgrades. You can remove your minimap or your health bar to make room for a damage boost. It was really cool to see the presence of information have a gameplay consequence.

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There is a game called Banished. Not very many people know about that game, but I quite like it. It’s a sort of city builder game set in the middle ages. It’s cathartic until disaster strikes. Anyway, Banished is interesting in this discussion because, similarly to Nier Automata, you can add or remove information from the screen. There are tons of menus full of important information: map, job list, resource panel, message log, etc. You can resize and move these information panels around or even remove them entirely. This is a great feature. At the same time, all of the information on the screen is never really explained. The only way to truly know how to play the game is to try and fail until you learn the mechanics or reading a guide elsewhere. So this game has a great UI system, but does a poor job of explaining it.

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Information is important, but too much information makes it difficult to parse important information from the rest. The UI should never distract from the gameplay. It should only inform the gameplay, not replace it. I love the idea of being able to customize how much HUD you want, but if the system is complicated, the game should be responsible for teaching the player how to use and understand it. It’s a delicate balance, but an important one.

Game of the Year

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The Game Awards just happened, and though mostly meaningless, I was rooting for my favorite games of the year. Of the contestants, my pick was definitely Horizon Zero Dawn. Sadly, the award went to Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild, but my opinions on that are for another time. Though I voted for Horizon Zero Dawn, and I did love that game, my top 3 choices were Prey, Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice, and Nier Automata. Spoiler warning for each of these, by the way.

Personally, I think that a title worthy of being called the Game of the Year should not just be the most popular game of the year, but something that adds something new to the industry, something that innovates. As much as I love Horizon Zero Dawn, it mostly just takes mechanics from other games and perfects them. There are so many games coming out every year, many of them are just reskinned versions of other games or they copy and paste all of their mechanics. The games that are brave enough to try something new should be the one’s recognized.

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Prey is probably my favorite Bethesda game, or it might be Fallout New Vegas…it changes all the time. It was very refreshing to see a more contained game from Bethesda. I love that about Arkane. They are much more contained, but every square foot is used. In the open world games, I love exploring, but there is so much empty space. I was lucky to have started Prey without any knowledge of what the game was about or what I should expect. I had no idea that the beginning of the game was a simulation, or that any object could be a mimic, etc. Prey is, by far, my favorite horror game. Unlike many other horror games, Prey doesn’t rely on jump scares for it’s horror. While it does have some jump scares in the form of mimics you’re not expecting, Prey creates the basis of it’s horror through making you suspicious and on edge at all times. I love that it made me afraid of coffee cups and trash cans. I think this is much more effective horror. The further into the game I went, the less I trusted everything and everyone around me. January, December, Alex, even the past versions of Morgan were all untrustworthy. It’s a slow burn style of horror. The environmental design is excellent at not only showing the status of the space station (I absolutely love the coral that spreads across Talos I), but also at designing diverse encounters that require different tactics. The last thing I want to talk about with Prey is the wide array of weapons, powers, and tactics. The recycling grenade, gloo gun, mimic power, the gravity field power, etc were all so goofy and awesome. I loved using them and I’ve never seen anything like it. If I were to pick the biggest flaw, it would be that the player becomes very powerful and it makes the enemies fairly trivial, thus lowering the horror aspect.

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Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice passed me by at first. I hadn’t heard much about it, and by the name, it sounded like some hack n slash Dynasty Warriors-style game. It was only about a month ago that someone recommended it to me. I instantly loved it from the opening cut scene. I really appreciate when media depicts mental illness well since I’ve struggled with mental health myself. I have never seen a better depiction of psychosis than Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice. My experience has never been nearly as bad as Senua’s, but there are elements in the game that ring true for me. I played this game with noise canceling headphones, and I was blown away by the sound design. The binaural audio made Senua’s voices feel real. I loved how the voices showed the doubt, encouragement, fear and danger in Senua’s heart. They not only showcase Senua’s illness, but also provide information in the combat, and hints for the puzzles. Speaking of the combat, many detractors find it repetitive and boring. I can see how people have that complaint, but personally, I found it simplistic but satisfying. I specifically enjoy combat systems with timing-based parry mechanics. Plus, the bosses were super cool and that doesn’t hurt. I think it’s important to remember, though, that Hellblade isn’t about the combat. The combat is just a way to represent Senua fighting against obstacles that her brain placed in front of her.

Hellblade’s mechanics are primarily puzzles. Most of them are “find the shape in the environment” puzzles. Many of the complaints I have seen talk about how they dislike these puzzles and they are just boring filler to make the game longer. Boring is a matter of opinion, but the puzzles actually fit perfectly into the game. One of the signs of psychosis is a need to find meaning where there is none: in others’ words in actions, in events that happen, or in the world around them. When the game locks a door behind runes that you must find in the environment, the door is not actually locked. It is simply locked for Senua. She is convinced that it is impossible to open that door until she has earned it. Senua has to find signs (runes) in the world around her to show her that she has earned it. It is a brilliant way to showcase this aspect of psychosis. Her brain is constantly creating obstacles and placing them in her way (something I can absolutely relate to). This game isn’t a fight against Hela, its a fight against herself and her guilt over her lover’s death. Everything she is doing is an avoiding facing her own illnesses. This is the darkness that encroaches across the screen when she is particularly vulnerable or scared.

I want to quickly talk about a few shorter things I appreciate. First of all, the game is beautiful. It displays the same sad, lonely, and rugged beauty of Senua herself. She is beautiful but her life has taken it’s toll on her. Her eyes are constantly shifting, suspicious and afraid. Her hair and face paint showing her Pictish heritage. Her body is covered in scars and wounds that mirror her mental state. Next I want to praise Melina Juergens’ performance. She had me transfixed. Her facial movements and voice acting perfectly displays her pain, fear and anger. I am so happy that she got the award for Best Performance. She deserves it. Lastly, I love their depiction of Norse mythology. So many adaptations stick to the lighter parts like Thor, Odin,  Asgard the glittering realm of the gods, etc, but there is so much more. Much of Norse mythology is dark, gritty, and violent. I love that Hellblade displayed this side of it.

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Nier Automata is a game that I was initially hesitant about. It had a lot of elements that I usually don’t like in other games. Bullet hell and hack n slash mechanics specifically put me off of it. A friend of mine bought the game and loved it. He convinced me to give the demo a try. I enjoyed it a lot; enough to buy it for myself. I first want to say that the music in this game is incredible and absolutely deserving of the Game Award for Best Soundtrack. Just like Prey, this game has a very contained open world. The world is small but full. I do wish that the world was full of more diverse enemies, though. It’s amazing to me that this game managed to create a complete story with five fleshed out characters: 2B, 9S, A2, Adam, and Eve. Each character has such depth. It’s especially amazing that they managed to give 2B, a terse and mostly silent android, a fleshed out character through her actions and the words of those around her. Our perception of 2B started as a strictly professional and efficient soldier who suppresses emotions to accomplish the mission. As we learn more about her, even after her death (something I’m salty about, by the way), we see that she cares a lot about 9S, but she has had to bury her feelings in order to be able to kill 9S again and again. 9S goes from innocent and excited to have company to bitter, heartbroken and reckless. Each other character has similar development. I want to quickly mention how expertly they showed that robots are not as simple as YorHa says. Though fighting them is the same, the robots from the factory, the castle, the amusement park, etc are all so different.

It was brave of Nier Automata to tell the story the way they did. I wonder how many people got the credits for Ending A and then put the game away because they assumed it was over. Normally, I would dislike a game that makes you repeat large sections, but the differences in play style as 9S as well as the new perspective and quests makes it alright, for me at least. I don’t think I have ever seen a game pull off storytelling from multiple perspectives this well before. Normally it feels fractured and breaks immersion and any sense of urgency. Another thing that really impressed me about Nier Automata was the creative camera work. Most of the game is from a third person camera view, but depending on the location, the game will fluidly switch you to a 2D or a top down view. It could happen several times each level. The last thing I want to mention about Nier is the chip customization. This concept isn’t new (Transistor does this the best, in my opinion), but the one thing I haven’t seen is the ability to remove sections of the UI to add more memory for other chips (kinda like you’re an android, right?). This isn’t a huge thing, but it’s a detail that adds some flavor that I like. If I had to pick my least favorite thing about this game it would be 9S’ hacking mini game. I can’t stand it. Objectively I think the biggest flaw is how little enemy variety there is.

I loved all three of these games. These stood out to me this year. They stepped outside of the comfort zone for video games these days. I think that they really distinguished themselves, even if they were small in scale. They don’t try to appeal to every gamer or pretend to be something they are not. Larger games such as Breath of the Wild or Horizon Zero Dawn are awesome and expansive and fantastic in the moment, but eventually the excitement diminishes. I find that games like Prey, Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice, and Nier Automata are the ones that stay in my mind for years. They are special. If I had to choose one of the three, I would probably say that Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice is my Game of the Year. I will never forget playing this game and I will probably never see another game like it. It is special and deserves recognition.

Dark Souls 2: An Underrated Gem

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According to the internet, Demons Souls is the weird one nobody has played, Dark Souls 1 is the best game ever made, Dark Souls 2 is trash, Bloodborne is almost as good as Dark Souls 1, and Dark Souls 3 is pandering fan service. Now, I think that the player base as a whole isn’t that extreme, but the vocal fans love to hate Dark Souls 2 and I think it’s undeserved. If I had to rate the series, personally, it would go Bloodborne, Demons Souls, Dark Souls 1 and 2 about equally, and then Dark Souls 3. I think that many people like to forget the flaws in Dark Souls 1 and ignore the strengths of Dark Souls 2. One of the biggest flaws of Dark Souls 3 (which I still love) was that it was too similar to Dark Souls 1 and had too many references. Personally, I love how different 2 is from 1. It was brave to set itself apart from its predecessor and I think it paid off.

One of the things that is popular about Dark Souls 1 is the variety of boss design and Dark Souls 2 is accused of having too many bosses that are armored knights. I think that people often forget or ignore the Re-skin Demon, A.K.A. the Asylum Demon, the Stray Demon, and the Demon Firesage. Those three bosses are literally re-skins of each other, and the only difference in functionality is their health, damage numbers, and the later two do magic or fire damage. In Dark Souls 2,  the only thing that is the same about the armored knight bosses is the fact that they wear armor. They are functionally different and have unique fighting styles. The Pursuer is aggressive and quick, making himself more dangerous because he inflicts curse. The Dragonrider is predictable and slow, perfect for learning patterns and dodge timing. He also has good player-controlled difficulty with the changeable size of the arena. The Ruin Sentinels are very challenging to fight all together, they are slow but hit very hard and have short and long ranged attacks. They teach you about zoning multiple enemies. The Looking Glass Knight is slow and telegraphs his moves, making him easy to fight on his own, but he summons phantoms and sometimes players. These new enemies are not push overs and the Looking Glass Knight has several crowd control attacks. You have to keep an eye on him while you take out the phantom as fast as possible. There are others, but I’ll leave this point here. Functional differences are more important than visual differences. If you look at them as game mechanics, there are more unique bosses in Dark Souls 2 than in Dark Souls 1.

One of my favorite enemies in Dark Souls 1 was the Basilisk. Those things are absolute bastards and curse sucks, but they were so goofy. I loved that they could make me afraid of a derpy frog monster. I also loved the mushroom people, Havel, and the corrupted citizens of Oolacile. From Software is not afraid of including some absurd and funny designs in their otherwise serious game to provide some levity. Not every enemy has to be a Black Knight. Dark Souls 2 just expanded that. Two of the bosses are perfect examples of this. The Demon of Song is a gigantic frog monster with human hands and a grotesque skull-like face. He hops around a pond trying to slap you with its giant arms and the only place to damage it is it’s creepy face, which he periodically covers with skin around his neck. The boss is incredibly goofy but also horrifying. The other boss is The Covetous Demon. He is a massive Jabba the Hutt-like creature. He has three basic attacks, lunging his body forward, rolling over on top of you and a fantastic tongue attack were he grabs you, eats you and then spits you back out after unequipping all of your items including your armor. So you have to either dodge him while putting your armor and weapons back on, or beat him to death with your fists. Both bosses are pretty easy, but they are still funny and have great designs. Another example is some of the weapons. There are entire anvils on chains, a club shaped like a drum stick that flings you onto your stomach with every heavy attack, and a sword made out of a slab of rock that’s larger than the player character. It’s all very creative and adds a lot of flavor to the game.

The weapons are not just good because there are some funny ones, there are so many and they are so creative. The same can be said for the magic and armor. There are so many viable builds in Dark Souls 2. I personally really like pure strength and hex caster. It makes the PvP so much more fun as well. I love invading someone’s world wielding the Fume Ultra Greatsword while dressed as a butterfly that poisons anyone near me, or dressed in the armor that makes me look invisible and cast crazy hexes into area. I haven’t mentioned rings and consumables, but there are dozens of each of those as well. There is so much variety in the game, much more, I think, than the other games in the series. Dark Souls 3 had, by far, the most weapons and armors, but they were almost all the same. Nearly every straight sword had the same animations and the stance weapon skill, every ultra greatsword had stomp, etc, so it didn’t feel quite as varied.

Something that many people dislike about Dark Souls 2 is that the story isn’t very connected to that of the first game, only a few small references, and that the story of the game itself is very fractured. I once heard it described as Dark Souls 1 is a straightforward but detailed saga and Dark Souls 2 is comprised of a series of short stories. I quite enjoy both. 1 had a much better story start to finish, but 2 had amazing character stories and location lore. I particularly love the story of Vendrick, Lucatiel, and the whole Iron Keep leg of the game. I want to give the DLC content in this game is fantastic as well. This series does an amazing job of creating detailed characters with snippets of dialogue and item descriptions.

Now I do want to make sure to recognize the flaws in the game because it’s not perfect. I enjoy the combat a lot, but I think that the parry timing was much worse than the rest of the games, and the weapons felt a little floaty. I also think that accessing the Darklurker boss fight is unreasonable. I love the boss and unlocking each of the three entrances is fine, but having to defeat those enemies every time sucks. The final boss is fine, but definitely a let down. The healing gems made the game significantly easier. I disliked three of the boss fights: the Ancient Dragon, Sinh the Slumbering Dragon, and the Old Iron King. It’s really a shame that From Software hasn’t managed a good dragon fight since Kalameet.

Overall, I think that the game is flawed but excellent. That how I also feel about Dark Souls 1. I love the series as a whole and even the worst one is still better than most other games I’ve played. There is something special about the series that I have never been able to pin down. It’s not the combat, the difficulty, the setting, or the storytelling. There are games that have had one or several of those elements, but they haven’t grabbed me in the same way. I must add that Dark Souls 2 created my favorite Souls meme.

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I Miss Couch Co-op

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I grew up with games like Halo 3, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, and Star Wars Battlefront. I would spend entire nights with my friends eating junk food and playing games together on the couch. I loved being able to hang out with my friends and family and all get to play a game together on the same screen. I have played hours of Little Big Planet, Towerfall, and Rock Band with my family. This new generation of consoles has seen a departure from local multiplayer, and a complete focus on online multiplayer, and I think it’s a shame.

Some of my favorite memories from my teens were of playing Zombies in Halo 3 and battling for the sniper roost on the Rust map of Modern Warfare 2. It was great to get together in person, lock ourselves in a basement and stay up all night eating pizza and gaming. As I’ve grown older, I still enjoy getting together with my friends and gaming all night occasionally, but now if we want to play together, each person has to bring their own PS4 and screen. While still fun, it’s inconvenient and a lot more work. It also loses a little sense of intimacy, it feels more like we’re playing next to each other and not together.

Don’t get me wrong. I love online multiplayer too. I have lots of friends who now live all over the country, and it’s fantastic to be able to get on discord and play with my friends all over the country. I’ve also met several great people in Overwatch and Fortnite chat that I enjoy playing with. I also understand that local multiplayer isn’t important to many people because they don’t have friends locally or they don’t have the time to organize a larger get together. It’s just easier to play with everyone online. I do understand this, but I also think that there is something more that you can get by having in person contact, drinking and eating together. It’s, at least, important to me.

Ideally, games would have both local and online multiplayer. All of the games I mentioned before have that feature. I could play Battlefront with my friends or online, or the single player. I want every player to be able to play the way that they want. It’s such a shame that Halo, once the pinnacle of local multiplayer, has abandoned it entirely. I know that this is more of a personal nostalgic complaint, and that this isn’t an issue for everyone, but I do care about it and that’s enough for me.

Morality and Choices

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The world is not black and white. It is a wide rainbow of different shades of gray. There’s no such thing as good and evil. Morality is subjective and can be different for everyone. The best fiction, in my opinion, explores this concept. With very few exceptions (Lord of the Rings, for example), I dislike any story that deals with a clear purely good heroes fighting purely evil villains. Those stories tend to be boring, unrealistic, and simplistic. Good stories take human nature and explore both the good and the bad. Morality is a subject that I wish was explored more in games. Most games that explore morality tend to just be telling a specific story, and does not offer choices. The Last of Us is a good example of this. When it comes to offering moral choices to the player, most games don’t touch it, and many that do tend to boil moral choices down into a clearly good choice and a clearly bad choice. The few times I have experienced truly interesting moral choices in gaming are some of my absolute favorite moments in games.

I don’t need every game to allow me to forge my own story through choices. If a developer has a specific story that they want to tell, then they should feel free to. I mentioned the Last of Us briefly before, but I think that it was a masterpiece of storytelling and offering choices could have easily ruined it. The player was not meant to play Joel as they would act in his place. The player was meant to experience this story through Joel’s eyes. His character is specific and unambiguous. Other games that do this are Bioshock, Uncharted, Wolfenstein, and many more. As long as the story is good, I am fine with not having true agency.

There are some games that are story based but fail to explore any kind of interesting morality. I think that these games have boring and unrealistic stories. Middle Earth Shadow of Mordor is an example of this. The gameplay is fun and the nemesis system was fantastic, but the story, itself was boring. I couldn’t care less about the main character. The outcome is predetermined because everyone knows the Lord of the Rings story, so there are no real stakes in that respect, and there is no exploration into the morality of the characters. Sauron and the orcs are clearly evil, and the humans are clearly good. The only character with any amount of moral ambiguity is Celebrimbor, and he was really just a good person manipulated by evil.

Most games that include moral choices take the simplest and easiest path, that of a binary morality system where you are given a good choice and a bad choice. It becomes more of a role playing decision where you decide if the player character is a good person or a bad person. Infamous does this. I love the first and second Infamous games but when you either choose to be Good Cole or Bad Cole, it doesn’t make you, the player, really think about what the moral choice is. You just decide that you want the evil powers or the good powers this playthrough and decide accordingly. Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic do this as well. You can never truly place yourself in the shoes of the player character because the immersion is broken by an unrealistic morality system. If you were truly in that situation, it wouldn’t even be a question. You wouldn’t ask yourself: “Hmm, should I steal all of the food from the starving people or nah?”.

Occasionally a game will come along that really makes you think about what is the right decision. These are amazing moments. One of my favorite examples of this was in the Witcher 3. You come across a small settlement that was almost entirely massacred. Geralt assumes, at first, that it was some monster that did this, but after examining the bodies, he discovers that they were killed with a sword. He followed the killer’s tracks to a wounded witcher. The wounded witcher reveals that he was contracted to kill monsters by the settlement but after he finished the contract they tried to get out of paying him by trying to stab him in the back. Wounded and furious, he killed most of the settlement. He knows that what he did was wrong and is prepared for you to execute him. But Geralt has experienced the discrimination and hate that most people have for witchers every day. He understands the pain and frustration of the constant mistrust and disdain that could lead to this mindset, and Geralt has not always done the right thing in the past. The player is given the option to duel the other witcher to the death or to let him live. I sat and looked at the screen thinking about the situation for at least 20 minutes. It really made me think and consider every factor. I loved it. The Witcher 3 had several really good moral choices like this.

Prey 2017 has several interesting choices as well. Spoiler warning for any game I mention, by the way. In the end you have to choose if you will sacrifice yourself and any remaining humans on the Talos 1 space station in the chance that you will stop the alien threat from spreading to Earth or if you will find an escape pod and try to return with help. The whole game, you have multiple characters insisting on the correct choice, including videos of yourself before your memory was wiped. Prey does an excellent job of making you mistrust every single person and thing on the space station, including yourself. You have no idea who to believe, so it’s a choice you must make for yourself. Life is Strange has some interesting choices as well. In the alternate timeline where Chloe’s dad is alive but she is paralyzed. After spending time with her, she asks you to help her end her life. The choice is agonizing, which makes it amazing. Some people criticized that moment because since Max immediately changes the timeline back, the choice ultimately doesn’t matter. I disagree. Perhaps it doesn’t affect gameplay, but it is a choice that Max will have to live with. I like to live through the characters I play and empathize with them, so Max’s impossible decision is my impossible decision. When a game truly makes me think deeply about my own personal morality, those are the moments that I remember.

Sometimes games create choices that have potential to create either gameplay or emotional impact, but ultimately fail to. Wolfenstein New Order and its expansion Old Blood have these choices. In both of these, you are forced to choose to save one of two people. Unfortunately, these choices come ten minutes after meeting the characters so you have no emotional investment, and the gameplay doesn’t change based on your decision, so the decision is also not functionally different. These feel like missed opportunities for powerful moments.

Ultimately I love when a game explores human nature and morality, but not when the morality is binary and simplistic. I also love having gameplay consequences to my choices.

Difficulty in Games

you-died-dsThe subject of difficulty in video games was discussed extensively a few months ago when Cuphead was released, but I think it is an interesting topic and worth speaking about. I have yet to play Cuphead, but I have played and loved the Dark Souls series, which is always brought up when discussing difficulty. My opinion on the subject, in its simplest form, is that difficult games are fine, easy games are fine, and games with multiple difficulty options are fine. Not every game has to appeal to every player. There are so many games, enough that every gamer can find plenty that appeal to their tastes.

When it comes to difficulty, I think that there is a fine line between frustrating and challenging. A challenging task is one that requires you to exercise your skills and strategy in a way that you normally don’t. When you overcome the task, you are filled with excitement and pride. A frustrating task is one where you aren’t forced to change your tactics, but you are simply required to be perfect or have more stamina. These tasks don’t make you exhilarated or proud(except maybe the satisfaction that others don’t have the skill to accomplish the same task), just a mounting sense of unfairness and bitterness.

Many shooter games err on the side of frustrating. On harder difficulties, enemies take more bullets to kill and you take fewer bullets to die so it becomes about staying alive long enough to shoot enough bullets into the enemies. The difficulty relies on taking longer and punishing mistakes. The Last of Us is an interesting case because not only does it make you die almost instantly, it starts to remove or change features. You have no UI(no health bar, no ammo indicator, it removes the ability to listen(see through walls) entirely, and it makes ammo and materials far less common. You really have to conserve ammo, choose which encounters are necessary to engage in rather than sneak past, and which upgrades or skills you want since there are not enough to upgrade everything. The way you play changes drastically. Nier Automata, while not a shooter game, does this poorly. On the hardest difficulty, you die in one hit, so you have to play perfectly. It often forces you to fight enemies by keeping distance and shooting enemies with your pod, which takes forever.

When it comes to Dark Souls, I think that its reputation does it a disservice. The series is challenging, but only until you learn it. Most players struggle through a game for 50 or more hours the first time, then complete a second playthrough in 10 hours. Dark Souls is fairly easy if you’re willing to learn its systems. Each boss will be difficult at first, until you learn their attack patterns and weaknesses. When you kill a boss, you feel proud because, even though you fail over and over again, you learn to progress further each time until you finally succeed. Dark Souls is challenging, but not frustrating (at least not usually…I’m looking at you Bed of Chaos…). Difficult games are good because they make beating them a true accomplishment.

The Dark Souls series also has several bosses that are known for being very easy. Examples of these are The Fool’s Idol from Demons’ Souls, Pinwheel from Dark Souls, The Covetous Demon from Dark Souls 2, Micolash from Bloodborne, and The Deacons of the Deep from Dark Souls 3. These are arguably the least popular bosses from each game because they offer no challenge. Personally, I love them because they usually have a new mechanic or story element that is interesting and unique. The Fool’s Idol has an NPC guardian who lies to you and makes the boss invincible until you kill him. Pinwheel has a heartbreaking backstory and amazing music. The Covetous Demon has an attack where he literally swallows you and spits you out naked after un-equipping all of your gear and armor. How goofy and amazing is that? Micolash is a huge troll. He immediately runs away from you while laughing like maniac until you can corner him. Yakety Sax would be perfect music for it. Deacons of the Deep is a giant crowd of pushover enemies where only one affects the health bar and they keep passing the boss health bar back and forth, like a game of keep away.

Another one of my favorite games is Journey. Journey takes a few hours to complete, there is no fail condition, and the puzzles are simple. The game is a masterpiece of environmental and emotional storytelling. The scenery, music and animations are beautiful and draw the emotion out of you. Journey is not hard, but it is unique and evocative. Life is Strange is another good example of a game that is easy but doesn’t suffer because of it. These illustrate why I think that not every game needs to be difficult. If a game, or part of a game, is interesting, entertaining, and evocative, then it doesn’t need to be challenging to be fun. Not every game is about overcoming challenge, nor do they need to be. Some games give you satisfaction from succeeding challenging tasks, some from an emotional release, and some from intellectual engagement.

The amazing thing about gaming is that the primary purpose is entertainment. If a game is fun or satisfying to play, then it is successful as a game. Not every person is going to like every game and that’s OK. There will be plenty geared towards them. Any time a game tries to appeal to every audience, it usually fails to succeed with any of them. Final Fantasy XV is an example of this.

To return to Cuphead and the controversy surrounding it, the situation all started with Dean Takahashi’s infamous poor gameplay of the demo. The subject of games journalism and the fiasco around Dean Takahashi requires its own post, but the fallout from that event spawned several articles talking about how games should not be hard, or that they should have a “Skip Boss” button. I disagree with this idea on many levels. Hard games are not bad, they just are not for everyone. It’s fine to dislike a game, but it’s not fine to claim it is a bad game simply because it wasn’t for you. As for the skip boss button. My immediate reaction is that it is a ridiculous overreaction. If you are frustrated with a game to a point where you want to skip content (especially in Cuphead, where the entire point of the game is to fight bosses) then you should just stop playing it. If a game is not fun, don’t play it. Simple as that.

Loadouts in Multiplayer Games

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Until around a year ago, I wasn’t much of an online multiplayer person. I played some here and there. Uncharted 2, Call of Duty Black Ops, classic Star Wars Battlefront and Battlefront 2. I did love local multiplayer. Modern Warfare 2, Battlefront, and Halo 3 I would play for hours on split screen with my friends. I also played some Warcraft 3 and Starcraft online as well. In the spring of 2016, a friend of mine sat me down and made me play Overwatch for a few hours. I almost instantly fell in love with it. The art style, the eccentric characters, the gun play all felt amazing. I was converted to multiplayer games and bought Overwatch for myself the next day. Since then, I have put some time into several games I never would have touched before: Lawbreakers and Ghost in the Shell betas, Paladins, Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds, and Fortnite Battle Royale.

I found that I preferred the games where everyone enters the battlefield equal. I liked Uncharted 2 multiplayer more than Call of Duty partially because Call of Duty had loadouts and Uncharted did not. In CoD, each player selects which guns, attachments, explosives, etc their character would start the match with. In Uncharted 2, every player would start with an AK47 and a grenade, but better weapons would spawn in specific locations around each map. The beginning of the game was a rush to get to the weapon you wanted before anyone else. It was simple, but equal. The only things that distinguished one player from another were skill and map awareness. In CoD, I never knew what kind of loadout a player I would encounter would have. Maybe they had been grinding for hours and have unlocked amazing weapons and would have an advantage over me in gear. I would gladly sacrifice gear customization for balance.

I do want to quickly mention how much I appreciate Modern Warfare 2 and its merit based progression. Instead of earning credits to buy gun upgrades and such, you have to play with a gun and accomplish tasks to earn the right to upgrade it. I just would prefer it to be in a single player game(Wolfenstein does this well) rather than a competitive multiplayer game.

One of my absolute favorite things about Overwatch is that every Genji is the same. I know exactly how much health he has, how much damage I can risk from him, what his abilities and cool downs are. There is no advantage one Genji might have over another except skill. I feel similarly about Fortnite BR and PUBG. Every player starts off equal and only skill, map awareness and luck will lead to victory.

I quite liked Paladins, and will talk about it more at a later time, but I don’t like the loadout system, especially because you have to get the loadout items in loot boxes. I think the mid-match upgrades you can purchase are interesting, but it makes it difficult to know what I’m going up against when I see a Kinessa. She could have different health, damage, etc than a Kinessa in a different game.

I understand that this is a matter of personal opinion and it’s a pretty minor issue, but I like to analyze the games I play. I know that many people like loadouts because they are a clear representation of game progression, but the only progression in multiplayer games that I care about is personal skill.

Loot Boxes: Gambling or Nah?

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Similarly to the Battlefront 2 situation, the subject of the ethics of loot boxes has been discussed a lot lately. Are they gambling, should you be able to buy them with money, what contents should they contain, what kind of games should be allowed to have them, etc. My view on this is mixed.

Simple Answer? Yes, loot boxes are gambling. You are expending a resource for the chance to gain something of greater personal value. Some people argue that in cases where you can earn loot boxes without buying them invalidates the gambling argument. I disagree. I think that time is also a valuable resource. “Time is money” as the saying goes. If I spend time grinding a game to earn loot boxes or the credits to purchase loot boxes, I am taking time out of other activities to earn the chance to gain something I want. I am gambling time for in game items.

Recently the ESRB ruled that loot boxes are not gambling because you are guaranteed something, even if it’s not what you want, unlike a slot machine where you may come away with nothing. I also think this is a bad argument because if you take it to its logical conclusion, I could create a slot machine that guarantees at least a penny every time you insert a token and place them in locations where gambling is illegal. This is obviously ridiculous.

I also want to briefly mention some similarities between something like a slot machine and a loot box. Every loot box system I have seen is colorful, has exciting sound effects, shiny color coding, etc. You press the button, the box shakes for a moment then explodes into a pile of loot. Often, they don’t even show you what you have immediately until you click on each item to reveal it. When you pull a lever on a slot machine, it plays exciting sound effects as the moving parts spin and flash. They reveal one by one so the anticipation builds with each revelation. Each of these elements come together to trigger dopamine centers and can easily be addicting.

If you agree with me so far, what is the solution? Should randomized reward systems be outlawed in games? Personally, I don’t think that is necessarily the only solution. I think the real problem is that most people don’t see loot boxes as gambling and so don’t know what they’re getting into with them. At the least, any game that has a system like this should declare it on the cover inside the ESRB rating. For example: T for Teen, Violence, Language, Gambling. Then people should be aware of what they are getting. Especially parents who might not want their kids to be engaging in a gambling system.

Some argue that because people can get addicted and self destructive, the system should not be allowed in any game. I can understand this, but I also believe in personal responsibility. As long as an individual knows what they are getting, they should be trusted to make their own decisions. Developers shouldn’t have to treat every member of their audience like a child that needs protecting.

The next question is whether players should be able purchase loot boxes with money or just through in-game actions. This also ties into the question of the loot box contents. In my opinion, purchasable loot boxes can only contain cosmetic items without becoming pay-to-win. If loot boxes can only be earned through in game actions, then it is tolerable that they contain gameplay-altering items, though I, personally, believe that gameplay advantages should only be awarded based on merit and nothing else. I have said before that gaming should be the ultimate meritocracy where every player enters equal and only skill can give you victory.

I think that an important thing to consider when looking at microtransactions in games is why a game might include them. I will use three games to illustrate my view of this: Overwatch, Battlefront 2, and Fortnite Battle Royale.

Fortnite BR is free to play, doesn’t contain advertisements, and all new content that has been added has been free. In late October, Epic Games added a microtransaction system where you purchase V-bucks and use V-bucks to purchase cosmetics. At the moment, this is the only way the game can make money. While it is true that this system is not a loot box system, but instead paying money for currency to buy items directly. It should also be noted that you can earn V-bucks by grinding in the paid PvE mode Save the World, but most players only have the free Battle Royale mode.  I think this system is fine because the microtransactions can only lead to cosmetic items and I believe that developers should be able to profit from games they make.

Battlefront 2 is more complicated at the moment since the future of their microtransaction system is uncertain. Currently it is not enabled, so players can only get loot boxes through in game actions. This was not originally true. Previously players could purchase crystals which can be spent for loot boxes. Furthermore, loot boxes in Battlefront 2 contain not just cosmetics, but also gameplay-affecting items. The system, as it was before, was not tolerable. Since players could purchase loot boxes with money which contain gameplay progression items, it was a pay-to-win system on top of a fully priced AAA game.

Overwatch is one of my favorite games, so I will try to be as objective as possible. Overwatch is $60 on Console and $40 on PC. The game includes a loot box system that you can either earn in game or by buying them with money. The boxes only contain cosmetic items but some consider having a microtransaction system in a pay-to-play AAA game is unnecessary and greedy. I can understand that, but since the Overwatch devs are consistently adding content every few months which is free for everyone. I would prefer cosmetic loot boxes that people spend money on to paying for new maps and heroes. Ultimately, I am fine with this system as long as Blizzard continues to support the game.

My thoughts boil down to pay-to-win is never acceptable, but cosmetic purchases are tolerable in games that are either free or are continually supported without paid dlc.