Overhaulout Part Two: Wasted

By Rutskarn
on Aug 18, 2017
Filed under:
Video Games

Last week I made the argument that Fallout 3 could have had much more interesting and effective writing while still appealing to its desired audience. One criticism I received was that New Vegas received a lukewarm reception from some of the most ardent F3 fans—and what was New Vegas, if not Fallout 3 written more interestingly and effectively?

Well, quite a lot. Let me be as explicit as possible: in this exercise, I am not trying to write New Vegas. That was a game that didn’t appeal to F3‘s broader audience simply because it had no interest in pursuing Bethesda’s design sensibilities. Obsidian wanted a morally-ambiguous political meditation explored through a basically linear zigzag through its curated gameworld. Bethesda wanted a tightly-linear main storyline with a baroque good-versus-evil narrative that serves as a tour guide to an otherwise totally open gameworld full of little disconnected vignettes to explore. There was no reason either game had to be written well or poorly based solely on development goals. You can argue that Obsidian’s priorities attract a better class of writer, or that Bethesda settled on the approach it did for want of strong narrative designers, but I’d argue success or failure in either case is hardly baked in at the conceptual stage.

If we’re taking one Obsidian-y action item on board, it’s the idea that a story’s conflicts should all reflect its theme. Last week we settled on a major theme to explore: it is good for the powerful to give strength to the weak. This week we’re going to mix in a theme to accompany, complicate, and inform this idea: there’s no free lunch. Whenever we feel tempted to boil a conflict down to “Should you give bread to the hungry because you want to be a good guy or just jack up the prices for evil karma points,” we can complicate the choice to a greater or lesser extent by asking something like: “If you give that bread away, how will you get everyone more bread?” In an Obsidian kind of game, we’d be asking that question constantly; the intense dilemmas would be half the point. In this Bethesda-style game there’s no reason to put that much pressure on the player, who’d probably rather make a straightforward choice and get on with the story and exploration, but being able to at least point to that tension and acknowledge the existence of scarcity will go a long way towards making characters and factions more interesting.

Speaking of “making characters more interesting,” I think it’s time we had a serious talk about the main character of Fallout 3. That would be James, aka Liam Neeson.

Continue reading »


20206Feeling chatty? There are 46 comments.



Borderlands Part 6: Destroy the Destroyer

By Shamus
on Aug 17, 2017
Filed under:
Borderlands

In copying the Diablo II style gameplay, it seems pretty clear the Borderlands team wanted to use the idea of the player moving from one town to the next on their journey. This idea didn’t really come together, and most of the towns feel empty.

Dr. Zed and Claptrap are the only inhabitants of Fyrestone, although Shep Sanders and T.K. Baha are stationed nearby. I guess you could argue that they’re still part of this “town”, even though they’re pretty far outside the walls. There are several buildings in here and I think it’s pretty clear that this was supposed to be a village with some NPCs hanging around. There’s a gun shop where Marcus could conceivably hang out, but he never shows up. Some of the homes have places where NPC types could sit on their porch.

The town of Fyrestone. Visible population: 1

The town of Fyrestone. Visible population: 1

I have no idea why the Shep Sanders character is so far out of town. Having him in Fyrestone would make more sense, and it would make the place feel a little more alive. At any rate, this feels like a town that was supposed to be much more populated, but they just ran out of time.

The next “town” is Lucky’s Last Chance Watering Hole. Lucky is the only person who lives there. I’m not sure if this is a town they never finished or if it was just supposed to be a pitstop along the way.

After that is New Haven, the only real town in the game. Marcus the arms dealer is here. Scooter is here. A couple of Claptraps are here. Helena Pierce – the disfigured woman from the original grim-n-gritty trailer – is apparently the mayor or whatever. There are a bunch of silent NPCs hanging around town to make the place feel lived-in.

Later on you get to a bounty board out in the wilderness. It’s got some vending machines and a Catch-A-Ride nearby. It serves as a town in terms of taking quests, getting vehicles, and selling items, but there aren’t any people at all.

So Borderlands only had one “real” town, but they kind of tried to give us a series of them.

Continue reading »


20201Feeling chatty? There are 41 comments.



Steam Backlog: Space Engineers

By Shamus
on Aug 16, 2017
Filed under:
Game Reviews

Technically this game isn’t one of the hundreds of unplayed titles in my Steam library. I picked up Space Engineers three years ago and I dabbled with it a bit before losing interest. At the time I thought it was an interesting idea, but it was too unfinished to really enjoy. It was roughly equivalent to the early alpha builds of Minecraft. It was a fun little system for creative building, but it wasn’t really a proper game yet. There was no sense of progression, no story, no end goal, or anything else to make it more than a really strange set of Legos.

It’s still being regularly updated, and so I thought it was time to give the game a second look. I’ve now spent four days with Space Engineers, and I honestly have no idea what the developers are up to. It doesn’t really feel all that much different from what I remember in 2014.

Continue reading »


20207Feeling chatty? There are 47 comments.



That 70’s Suitcase

By Shamus
on Aug 15, 2017
Filed under:
Column

Last month I mentioned that I get certain hypothetical problems or situations stuck in my mind. I’m only just getting over one now. The hypothetical that’s been chasing me around for the last couple of months is one I’ll call the 70’s Suitcase Problem. Here is how it works:

What if you could send a package (let’s say suitcase-sized) to 1977? It will arrive at today’s date, minus 40 years. You can have it sent to whomever you like, but you can’t personally hang around and make sure it gets used properly. There’s nothing about this delivery that will convince the recipient that this package is from the future. There won’t be any flashing lights or vortexes or portals for them to see. All they see is the package on their doorstep, and they have no special knowledge of this experiment or your efforts. It’s up to your packaging to motivate the people of 1977 to open it and pay attention to the contents.

You also can’t enlist any large-scale help to fill this suitcase. You can’t call on NASA, or launch a “Help Save the 70s” Kickstarter. You don’t magically have access to classified data or government funding. Filling this suitcase comes down to you, your wits, and however much you’re willing to put on your credit card. (If you’re well-off then maybe limit yourself to 10k in spending, just so you’re working on the same problem as the rest of us.) For the purpose of the exercise, imagine you have a way to send the package, but there’s no way to prove this to anyone here in 2017.

What do you put in the package? What items or information will benefit them most? How will you get that information, how will you package it, and how will you entice the recipient to take it seriously?

Now, some of you might reject the entire premise of the project. Maybe you don’t want to mess with the timeline on practical grounds. We haven’t had a nuclear war (yet) and maybe you’re afraid mucking about in the Cold War era could change that. Or maybe you dislike messing with history on moral or aesthetic grounds. Maybe you feel like you don’t have the right to change the lives of basically everyone, even with the best of intentions. Or maybe you’re afraid that people, not ignorance, is the biggest problem in the World and so you don’t think that giving the same bunch of idiots a new set of information will improve life on This Here Earth. Or maybe you just don’t want the job.

That’s fine. You’re excused.

Maybe you don’t like thinking about it because messing with the timeline would cause you to not be born. For the sake of argument, let’s say this is some sort of Nu-Trek alternate timeline deal. You’ll still be here in your familiar 2017, but somewhere out there will be a new alternate history / multiverse type thing where a new timeline will fork off from ours in 1977 and go a different way, based on your intervention.

I suppose it should go without saying, but I’m proceeding under the assumption that our goal is to somehow make the world a better place. “Better” in this case is entirely up to you. Yes, you could use this opportunity to make yourself rich or powerful, or to simply perpetrate some prank on a global scale, but those sort of efforts fall outside the parameters of this exercise. That might make for an an interesting project, but it’s not this project.

For the purposes of discussion, we’ll refer to the recipient of the suitcase as Red Forman. Maybe your chosen Red Forman is a working class type, maybe they’re a scientist, or maybe they’re a politician. It’s up to you who gets it, but I’m going to call them Red.

You can use any container you like. If it’s legal dimensions for carry-on luggage, then you’re good. If you decide you want to put all your future treasure in a picnic basket, that’s your business. For the purposes of this article I’m calling it the “suitcase”.

Assuming you can buy into this premise, let’s get to work. It turns out this is a really complicated problem…

Continue reading »


A Hundred!A Hundred!20202017There are more than 276 comments. But less than 278



Timely Game of Thrones Griping 5: An Analysis of the Daily Caloric Requirements of Dothraki Cavalry

By Bob Case
on Aug 14, 2017
Filed under:
Television
This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.

I’ve finished moving! Our long national nightmare is over. This episode picks up right after the last one left off, with Jaime and Bronn somewhere outside King’s Landing.

It`s a good thing none of the Dothraki took a casual look around after the battle, or they might have noticed the commander of the enemy army sitting on a nearby shore in plain view.

It`s a good thing none of the Dothraki took a casual look around after the battle, or they might have noticed the commander of the enemy army sitting on a nearby shore in plain view.

It’s the aftermath of the battle between the Lannister and Targaryen/Dothraki armies. Jaime and Bronn have managed to swim downstreamApparently they can both hold their breath longer than Guybrush Threepwood. and escape. Jaime is, understandably, a little pessimistic at this point about the chances of a Lannister victory in this war. But hey, at least he’s alive. Now it’s time for the big-ticket Dragon scene, where we can ask an important question about Queen Daenerys:

Is Daenerys Targaryen Still Meant to be a Sympathetic Character?

Because if you showed someone this episode as their first ever exposure to Game of Thrones, that person would probably assume that Dany is meant to be the villain of the show. And even those of us who have been watching since the beginning could be forgiven a bit of confusion. Because the show takes every opportunity to sing her praises – Missandei gushes about how Daenerys is the “Queen we chose,” Jon tells Davos that she has a “good heart,” and Varys monologues at length about how she’s best choice for Westeros.

But her actions so far have been the actions of a tyrant. When justifying her own right to rule, she’s referenced her birthright and nothing else. Neither she nor any of her advisers have even briefly mentioned any concrete way in which she’d be an improvement for the common people of Westeros. And upon meeting another Westerosi ruler (Jon), she wasted no time in making a captive of him and demanding he bend the knee.

Her speech to the defeated Lannister troops sums this problem up nicely. First, she says “All I want to destroy is the wheel that has rolled over rich and poor to the benefit of no one but the Cersei Lannisters of the world.” Aha! A reference to her “break the wheel” speech. A populist angle, a reformist angle. Perhaps she can offer something that other monarchs haven’t? A more egalitarian approach, maybe? But no, the very next thing she says is “I offer you a choice: bend the knee and join me – together, we will leave the world a better place than we found it. Or refuse, and die.”

Continue reading »


A Hundred!202020202I bet you won't even read all 182 comments before leaving your own.



The Best of YouTube Part 2

By Shamus
on Aug 13, 2017
Filed under:
Television

Like I said last week, I’m listing a bunch of YouTube channels that I find particularly interesting or noteworthy. The ordering of the list just reflects my own preferences and viewing habits, not the quality of the channel or its content.

Continue reading »


2020201575 comments? This post wasn't even all that interesting.



Borderlands Part 5: Breaking Tone

By Shamus
on Aug 10, 2017
Filed under:
Borderlands

People call Borderlands “action comedy”, but that applies more to the second two games. I honestly find it really hard to nail down the tone of the first one. The trailers sold us action comedy, but when you played the thing it was sometimes dark and grim. In a few spots it was genuinely funny. For parts of the game it was mildly amusing by way of being over-the-top ridiculous. Most of the time it left you alone to blast dudes in the face for hours at a time without delivering any dialog, and the only thing supporting the supposed humorous tone was the cartoonish art style.

The second game has a modest contingent of critics that don’t find the game funny at all, and even describe the game’s humor as childish and lame. I’ll take a look at the humor (or lack thereof) a bit later in this series.

A Quest of Sidequests

I`m Zed. I`m gonna ask you to kill three different bandit kings before I`ll give you permission to go to the next town.

I`m Zed. I`m gonna ask you to kill three different bandit kings before I`ll give you permission to go to the next town.

Borderlands doesn’t really have a story. It has a bunch of disconnected sidequests that are chained together and linked to plot-driven doors to force you to do the quests.

Continue reading »


20208Feeling chatty? There are 48 comments.



The New Game From Valve

By Shamus
on Aug 9, 2017
Filed under:
Video Games

My reaction to the recent news went something like this…

Valve is releasing a new…

Oh boy! Something new from Valve!

…DOTA…

Shit. Nevermind.

…collectible…

Yeah. Whatever.

…card game.

Forget it. I literally stopped caring three words ago.

Valve always leaves me in a tough position. I know I spend a lot of time complaining about publishers. But while I accuse outfits like Ubisoft and EA of being mis-managed due to ignorance of their audience, I grudgingly admit that Valve is really good at figuring out what the public wants. Sure, they make mistakes. Like any company run by human beings they’re prone to occasional bouts of carelessness, myopia, and bad timing, but their failings are usually understandable as the result of human frailty and not systemic management cluelessness.

When EA does something I don’t like, it’s usually because they have no idea what the public wants. When Valve does something I don’t like, it’s usually because they have a really good idea what the public wants and it just happens to displease me.

Which is to say, I’m sure this new game from Valve will be a quality title with lots of fans. It will make money. In fact, I’m willing to bet it will offer a far better return on investment than Half-Life 3 would. I might really want them to make HL3, but I can’t make a business case for it. I can only ask that they do it out of the goodness of their hearts. That usually makes for a lousy pitch.

Here is the announcement trailer for their new DOTA (ugh) collectible (yuck) card game (eye roll) titled “Artifact”…


Link (YouTube)

As an aside, I can’t blame the people who got momentarily hyped that this was going to be some sort of Half-Life announcement. The music in the trailer is obviously the work of Kelly Bailey, using many of the same stylistic markers found in Half-Life 2 tracks. This trailer sounds Half-Lifey. If I hadn’t known what it was before hitting “play”, I might have made the same mistake.

While I’m sad we’re not getting more Half-Life, it’s probably for the best at this point. As someone pointed out on Twitter, there are no longer any writers (that we know of) working at Valve. Their entire creative culture has changed. Even if they suddenly decided it would make financial sense to make the game, it’s entirely possible it would lack the magic ingredients that made the series so popular. We could end up with a Mass Effect 3 type situation where the final installment of the story doesn’t fit, doesn’t lead to a satisfying conclusion, and feels tonally or thematically disconnected from what came before.

Is that better or worse than leaving us hanging forever? I honestly don’t know.


A Hundred!7107 comments. Quick! Add another to see if this message changes!



This Dumb Industry: "Could Have Been Great" Games

By Shamus
on Aug 8, 2017
Filed under:
Column

Last week I talked about using polish to turn a good game into a great one, but I deliberately avoided giving examples. That post was already 3,000 words long and there were too many disparate topics to cover that there wasn’t room to enumerate, explain, and quantify what I was talking about. So let’s do that now.

The point of the exercise is to come up with games that felt like they could be vastly improved by just a modest investment of additional work at the end of the project. Let’s imagine we’re aiming for stuff that can be fixed in ~6 weeks or less. Six weeks might sound like a long time, but in terms of AAA game development it’s not all that much. 18 months (78 weeks) is a pretty common development cycle, which means six more weeks is less than a 10% increaseWhich is probably a lot less than a 10% increase in budget, if we assume the team is reduced in size once you enter the polish stage.. Obviously this isn’t always possible. Sometimes the money just isn’t there, and sometimes you need to hit that ship date for Christmas. But if we find ourselves in a position where we can make a huge improvement to the game for only a 5% or 10% increase in budget, then that’s a move we want to make.

This short window limits what we can and can’t do. Obviously you can’t do major story re-writes or add detailed voiced characters. We can’t call famous voice actors back and have them re-do all their lines. Even if scheduling isn’t a problem, that’s not the sort of thing you can do cheaply. You probably can’t make sweeping changes to cutscenes, although maybe you can tweak things like props, timing, camera angles, and musical cues. Bonus points if we can improve the game by simply removing stuff that doesn’t work and still ship a complete experience.

We also can’t do major re-designs to the gameworld. No, we can’t completely change the layout of the Doom Fortress at the end of the game. But maybe we can remove the stupid hedge maze everyone hates. We can’t add all new guns to the game, but we can tweak what we’ve got. We can’t add a whole new village, but we could change an existing village so the player doesn’t constantly get caught on little bits of scenery as they walk around. We can’t redo all the sound effects, but maybe we can add or change a few.

So those are the ground rules. Here’s my list of games that could have been far better with just a little more effort.

Continue reading »


A Hundred!A Hundred!17217 COMMENTS? What are you people talking about?!?



Timely Game of Thrones Griping 4: The One With the Giant Honking Battle

By Bob Case
on Aug 7, 2017
Filed under:
Television
This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.

I’m still moving, and won’t have internet until Wednesday, so this week’s griping is brought to you by that greatest of all public works projects: Starbucks free wifi. For that reason, it might be a bit on the short side again.

Team Cersei Update

We start with Ser Jaime, Bronn, and company on their way back from Highgarden. They have wagons piled high with gold and grain (or some kind of food). Highgarden appears to have had a great deal of gold squirreled away – we later learn it’s enough to repay the throne’s debt to the Iron Bank. That debt was last important all the way back in season five, when Mace Tyrell got the guy who plays Mycroft Holmes to give them a reprieve through a singing-based charm offensive.I just want to say here that I actually liked Mace Tyrell. I’ll miss him.

Last episode Queen Cersei asked for a `fortnight.` Did an army that`s mostly on foot really go from King`s Landing to Casterly Rock to Highgarden and back to King`s Landing in the space of two weeks?

Last episode Queen Cersei asked for a `fortnight.` Did an army that`s mostly on foot really go from King`s Landing to Casterly Rock to Highgarden and back to King`s Landing in the space of two weeks?

It seems a little strange to me that House Tyrell had this huge amount of money and no one had ever mentioned it before, but on this show things that “seem a little strange” barely register anymore. Bronn and Jaime exchange a bit of banter, where Bronn refers to Highgarden as “the biggest prize in the world.”

“The biggest prize in the world.” What? Look, I know this is a small thing, but every so often this show throws a line in that makes me wonder if they’re even trying, or if they even have an editing process at all. A line like that shouldn’t make it through editing. If nothing else, it should be changed to something like “you’ve just won a great prize,” or maybe “you’ve just won the biggest prize in the Reach,” or something like that. Don’t call Highgarden “the biggest prize in the world” when it’s clearly not. It’s just sloppy. It speaks to a lack of care.

Next Jaime has Bronn and the Tarlys collect the Reach’s last harvest. That’s presumably the last harvest before a winter that will last several years. So… did Jaime just condemn an entire region of Westeros to starvation? I’m not sure. I guess we’ll find out.

Continue reading »


A Hundred!A Hundred!20209249 COMMENTS? What are you people talking about?!?



The Best of YouTube Part 1

By Shamus
on Aug 6, 2017
Filed under:
Television

Steve C asked a question last week:

Shamus, what Youtube channels do you watch?

I remember you mentioning on the Diecast that you don’t watch TV anymore. That your recreational TV time has been replaced by Youtube. Personally I wish I could do that. There’s just not enough of stuff on Youtube I want to watch. Except I know that I’m wrong. With a few million years worth of content on Youtube I know that there has to be more than stuff on there that I’d like, I’ve just never found it.

So I’m curious what non-TV options you fill your time with.

It’s not completely true that I don’t watch television. That’s only mostly true. There’s exactly one traditionally big-media show that I’m into. I’ll talk about that at the end of this post series. The rest of my passive entertainment comes from YouTube.

Here’s a list of the channels that I’m into these days. We’ll start with the ones of mild interest and work our way up to the channels that I never miss and which have have remained engaging through repeated archive binges. For each channel I’ll list a “viewing suggestion”, which is one particular video that’s either remarkably good, a personal favorite, or a suitable starting point for new viewers.

And yes, the title of this post is a lie. This is not remotely the “best” of YouTube. But “The Stuff I Happen To Watch On YouTube Because I Subscribed Six Months Ago And I’m Too Lazy To Unsubscribe And Besides It’s Mostly Pretty Good” isn’t as catchy.

Continue reading »


A Hundred!9109 comments. Quick! Add another to see if this message changes!



Steam Backlog: The Room

By Shamus
on Aug 4, 2017
Filed under:
Game Reviews

Sometimes you come across a game that’s not doing anything particularly new, but it’s re-treading old ground with such a dedication to quality that it feels new. “I never knew this sort of game could be this genuinely enjoyable.”

Mechanically, The Room is a descendant of the classic “escape the room” titles that were all the rage among browser-based games a decade ago. Through careful examination you discover a sliding panel, which reveals a button, which pops open a container, which contains a key, which opens a safe, which contains a scrap of paper, which details the correct arrangement of some previously-inscrutable switches, which unfastens a lid, which reveals a clock, which you get the idea. In this game you’re working your way into a puzzle box rather than working to exit a room, but it’s the same basic idea. Either way you’re unraveling the work of some obstructionist jackass who has confused obscurity with security, leaving their plans vulnerable to someone with a flair for lateral thinking and lots of free time.

The trick for me here is that it’s really hard to quantify what makes The Room so good. Which kind of sucks, since that’s my job. But in order to sustain my thin veneer of professionalism, let me take a half-assed stab at it…

Continue reading »


20222 comments. Hurry up and add yours before it becomes passé.




From the Archives: