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.

The Art of Absurdity

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When it comes to storytelling, in any medium, it is important to keep a tonal balance. In film and television, if the tone is always dark and gritty, it can get wearing and even break the immersion, becoming melodramatic. At the same time, if there are too many moments of levity or humor, the experience becomes more casual and harder to get invested. The same sort of thing can happen in games. It’s important to keep a balance of realism and absurdity, not just in story, but also in game mechanics.

Realism can add a lot to a game. I, personally, appreciate when games add elements like limb damage, stamina, and bullet drop (depending on the game, of course), but sometimes it’s taken too far. In Shenmue II, the ending of the game includes a hiking sequence, with little interaction, that takes 2 hours in real time. In DayZ, you have to consider sore feet, rain making you cold, staying fed, ingesting bacteria from dirty water, etc. DayZ, obviously appeals to some people, and I’m glad that it exists for them, but I think there is a line where realism turns from strategic considerations to frustrating or boring tedium. These games can be interesting, but will rarely have a lasting playerbase.

On the other side, there are some games that are too absurd. I think that absurdity is a highly underrated feature in games. Absurdity can create some of the most fun moments. In Wolfenstein New Order, you impersonate a scientist to sneak into a Nazi research base on the moon. Killing Nazis on the moon while dual wielding sniper rifles that can transform into laser guns is an incredible amount of fun. In Fortnite Battle Royale, you can build ridiculous, physics-defying structures to outmaneuver opponents while dressed as a bush and then fire a rocket at a teammates feet to pick them up and send them flying across the map while surfing on a rocket. It is absurd and amazing and incredibly fun. Some games, however, are built around absurdity, and while entertaining, have very little staying power. A perfect example of this is Goat Simulator. Flying around a map as a murderous, glitched out goat, constantly knocking things over and causing mass destruction is fun and gimmicky, but only for an hour or two before it gets old. Octodad and the Just Cause series are the same way.

One of my favorite games is The Last of Us. It is a masterpiece of pacing, storytelling, and character growth. It does really well with balancing its tone as well. The setting and story are very dark and serious, but there are beautiful moments where the characters and the players take a moment to release some of the tension. The giraffe encounter in Salt Lake City was incredibly moving because it was a perfect counter balance to the depression and trauma created by the encounter with David. Ellie’s teasing of Bill helped distract both the player and Joel from Tess’ death. Mechanically there is realism in the arrows breaking based on how the corpse falls and the noise created by starting up a generator, but there are also considerations for the sake of enjoyable gameplay, such as being able to listen carefully and see through walls or being able to stick several hand guns, a bow, shotgun, rifle, a brick, several nail bombs, lit molotov cocktails, shivs, ammo, and many more things in a single backpack. Wolfenstein is another good example of a game that has a good balance.

I should clarify that I understand that games like DayZ and Goat Simulator have people that they directly appeal to, but for the general gamer audience, it’s different. Like so many things, games are best as a collection of elements from both sides in moderation. Realism and absurdity are both valuable qualities in games, as long as there is some of both.

DLC: Good or Bad?

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DLC is an important issue in the industry that gamers tend to be very split on. Some think that new features are always a good thing, even if it costs more money and some think that DLC is anti-consumer and unacceptable in any form. Like most issues, my opinion is somewhere in the middle. Some DLC is good, some DLC is bad. I think that intent, cost, timeline, and type of game are all relevant when deciding if a piece of Downloadable Content is bad or not.

I think that the biggest problem with DLC in games is when a game is released, has a $60 price tag, and then has paid DLC a week later. When a game has extra content for sale so soon after release, it means that the content was ready and always intended to be part of the game. The devs simply released an incomplete game at full price and then offered the rest of it for more money. The complete game is not $60, but $70, $80, $100, or more, depending on how much DLC there is. Marketing an incomplete game as a finished product while holding the rest hostage under an additional pay wall is anti-consumer and unacceptable. One of my absolute favorite series is terrible about this and I have been forced to stop purchasing their products: Total War.

I have been playing the Total War games since Medieval Total War in 2002. I have hundreds of hours in Rome, Shogun II, and Empire Total War and dozens in the others. These games are incredibly fun and appeal to my strategic and gameplay sensibilities on almost every level, but a month after each game is released there’s $20-$40 of DLC. Usually a game will launch with 5 or 6 playable factions in a map of 25+ AI factions. In a couple months after release, they will often add 5 or so more. These were obviously in the works at launch, but unfinished. They were always intended to be in the game and charging more money for them as if they were simply extra features is dishonest and unethical. If the game is unfinished, they should either delay the release or publish the rest of the content for free. Creative Assembly, though amazing at creating games, has business practices that I can no longer support.

In shooter games like Call of Duty, the devs will release new map packs as paid DLC. Fighting games like Injustice will also do this with new playable characters. I don’t see this as quite as awful as the Total War system, but it’s still not great either. While the extra content is not necessary to play or enjoy the full product, but it splits the player base. Since only some people will be able to play on all of the maps or as all of the characters, matchmaking becomes more complicated, separating players into those who can play with the extra content and those who can’t. This becomes worse and worse with every added piece of DLC. Companies try to solve this by offering a Season Pass, which guarantees access to future DLC for a one time price. This concept, while seemingly practical and will probably save you money, is not a good idea as a consumer. You are paying for content that doesn’t exist yet. There is no guarantee that future DLC will be of acceptable quality or that there even will be more DLC. It is the same issue as pre-orders, which I will get into in more detail another time.

I think that a game that does this well is Overwatch. The game is a one-time purchase, $40 for PC and $60 for Console, and you get access to all current and future content. Every new character, map, balance fix, event skin, etc is available to you. You never have to spend another cent. The way that Blizzard can do this and continually create new content for the game is through the optional loot box purchases. The loot box system is one that is controversial and some see it as anti-consumer. I covered this topic in my post about loot boxes. Essentially, as long as the contents of the loot box are only cosmetic, I am fine with the system existing and I much prefer it to being charged for each new character or map.

Another situation that is worth considering is free-to-play games. While I don’t like a system where parts of the game are locked behind a pay wall, but as long as the game isn’t pay-to-win, I suppose it is acceptable. I think that a good middle ground here is a game like League of Legends or Paladins, where most of the characters are unavailable initially. You have to either purchase them or unlock them eventually by playing the game. Each week, there is a rotation of characters that are playable for free, that week. The game is free, it is all unlockable by playing the game, and there is a way to experience all of the content if you play long enough.

Now on to examples of DLC that I think is specifically done well. First, I want to talk about From Software and the Soulsborne Series. Every game, other than Demons’ Souls, has had at least one piece of DLC. Every single one, in my opinion, has been an excellent addition to the game. They usually release the base game with plans to add DLC later, but the content in the DLC never feels like it should have been included in the base game. They all are clearly additions to the world and story and each one has added several hours of content. Bloodborne’s The Old Hunters expansion included my favorite boss fight in the series. For a paid DLC on a fully priced base game to be acceptable, I think that the added content needs to be high quality, solid quantity, and should feel transformative or at least additive to the base game.

Firaxis, the makers of Civilization and XCOM, is an interesting case. I find that each game they release is excellent on launch and feels complete. Their major expansions have all be amazing and worth every penny, but they sometimes have smaller DLC packs which, while not necessary for the game, don’t merit their own price tag. XCOM 2 had a collection of additional soldier customization options called Anarchy’s Children. This should have either been included in one of the later DLC’s or added for free. Civilization VI adds new playable civilizations to the already plentiful list every few months. I think that these are often over priced. They are always good, but should be priced reasonably. On the other hand, XCOM Enemy Within improved on Enemy Unknown exponentially. It completely transformed the game and added tons of new content. Civilization V Gods and Kings, Brave New World, etc were all massive overhauls of the game, adding new features and changing mechanics. XCOM 2 War of the Chosen could have been marketed as a separate game. It completely changed how the game is played and added hours of new content. Overall, Firaxis has a few lackluster but not terrible DLC’s and arguably some of the best DLC ever made.

The last example I want to mention is The Witcher 3. The Witcher 3 is often held up as an amazing example of DLC done right. I just want to add my voice to this. Hearts of Stone, as an expansion was excellent. The story, new characters, new monsters, new part of the map to explore, new crafting mechanics were all excellent. The missions for Von Everic were quite different and very fun. I also loved how well it fit into the post game of Witcher 3. You didn’t need to start an entirely new playthrough of this massive game to play the new content at a satisfying level. I was blown away by Hearts of Stone and it was probably my favorite DLC in any game…until Blood and Wine. Blood and Wine was bigger and more saturated than most other AAA games. If I had to pick my least favorite thing about the base game of Witcher 3, it was that many of the Witcher Contracts and side missions felt pretty similar to each other. This was not a problem at all in Blood and Wine. Every mission, was unique, hilarious, evocative and fun. Posing for a painting with a dead griffin, winning a grand tourney, helping a love struck knight woo a cursed woman, enduring the bureaucracy of Beauclaire banking, and my favorite quest in the whole game: entering a land of corrupted fairy tales. When people say that DLC is unacceptable, I can understand that, but then I point to Blood and Wine and realize that DLC can sometimes be amazing and absolutely worth it.