Borderlands Part 10: More Characters

By Shamus
on Sep 21, 2017
Filed under:
Borderlands

Since the city of Sanctuary is the only real town in the game, the developers were able to pack it full of interesting details and a large cast of characters. You get a few quests as you enter town that will steer you into meeting these people.

Sir Hammerlock

Trivia: This voice actor also does the (english) voice of Kyoya Ootori from Ouran High School Host Club, and Scar from Fullmetal Alchemist. This role is... not like those other two.

Trivia: This voice actor also does the (english) voice of Kyoya Ootori from Ouran High School Host Club, and Scar from Fullmetal Alchemist. This role is... not like those other two.

Technically we met Sir Hammerlock during the previous chapter, but I was too busy complaining about pacing to introduce him. He is both a zoologist and a big game hunter, which is kind of like being a marine biologist and a whale hunter. Sure you can be both of those things at the same time, but people generally… aren’t. But this underscores two important points:

  1. The wildlife on Pandora is crazy dangerous, to the point where a zoologist has to be able to slay creatures just to do his job.
  2. Everyone on this planet is a little crazy, even the scientists. No, especially the scientists.

He’s one of my favorite characters in the series and I’m always glad when one of his ridiculous jobs of questionable scientific merit comes up.

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No Man’s Sky One Year Later: The Disappointment Engine

By Shamus
on Sep 19, 2017
Filed under:
Column

There is a very distinct rhythm to playing No Man’s Sky. It’s been a part of the game since launch, and even after an entire year of updates it still holds true: No Man’s Sky is a disappointment engine. I don’t just mean the game was a disappointment when it came out. I mean the game seems to have been designed to create a series of frustrating let-downs as you adventure across the galaxy.

Problem: Find some shortcoming or annoyance in the game. Usually, but not always, this annoyance stems from the inventory system.

Solution: Maybe you think of it on your own, or maybe you check the wiki, but you find a possible solution for the problem. You realize that the solution is going to be a long, frustrating, unrewarding grind. But you do it anyway, in the hopes that you’ll be able to have more fun once the task is over.

Disappointment: Once you’ve completed your goal, you realize the reward is incredibly underwhelming, not worth the effort, and doesn’t even fix the original problem.

There are a lot of these moments in the game. I can’t enumerate them all. But let’s look at a few that really got to me…

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Timely Game of Thrones Griping 9: Valar Bloghulis

By Bob Case
on Sep 18, 2017
Filed under:
Game of Thrones
This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.

Two weeks ago I promised you all an update “next week” (ie, last week). That’s because I forgot that I wasn’t planning on doing one last week because of busyness issues – sorry about that. But now I’m back and ready to start complaining again.

Whenever I review Game of Thrones I have to rein in the impulse to just laundry-list all the things I didn’t like or that didn’t make sense to me. If I did that, we’d be here all day and it wouldn’t be much fun to read. Instead the challenge is to pick out the things that bothered me most, or if not that the ones I think are most revealing. Using this technique, I will now review the entire show. Not an episode, not a season, but the entire show – or at least my personal experience with it.

My personal experience can be bookended with two moments: the first time I began to have doubts about the show, and the time that I finally gave up on it. I’ll describe each below, and then tell you what I took away from the whole thing.
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TV I’m Watching: Narcos

By Shamus
on Sep 17, 2017
Filed under:
Television

Narcos tells the story of the drug war between the Colombian government and a series of Colombian drug lords, with a handful of Americans acting as our main characters even if they weren’t of central importance to the events in question. The show is shot on location, in Spanish, with proper period clothing / technology / cars. This gives the show an incredible level of verisimilitude, even before you realize that it’s all based on real events.

How can you tell which parts are real and which are Hollywood fiction? Easy. The parts that flow like a proper story with character arcs, suspense, and intrigue are fiction, and the cartoonishly implausible stuff about the cartels is real.

The first two seasons told the story of Pablo Escobar, and that guy is where most of the really strange stuff comes from. The guy was basically The Joker, let loose in a world without Batman. Or maybe he was a James Bond supervillain in a world without a James Bond.

The closest thing we have to a super-spy in this story is the morally compromised and profoundly cynical CIA agent Bill Stechner. He’s not here to stop the cartels, he’s here to enforce the ever-shifting will of the US State Department. He’s good at his job and you get the feeling he’s done some really ugly shit in his life, but he’s not the hero and he’s nowhere near being a main character. Like so many fascinating personalities in this story, he’s lurking on the edges of the action and making you wonder how much of him is based on real people or stories.

This isn’t a simplistic story about Escobar vs. The Cops. This story is fractal. At a high level you’ve got the cartels, the USA, and Colombia. But the “Cartels” are a conglomerate made of organizations made of families made of gangs. The USA is likewise made up of different factionsThe military, the CIA, and the DEA. that engage in a lot of infighting. Colombia is a complex country with different economic, geographical, and political groups. Nobody’s 100% a saintAlthough Colombian president César Gaviria comes out looking pretty good. I often wonder what Colombians think of his portrayal on the show. and nothing is clear-cut. The fight against Escobar was a never-ending string of trolley problems mixed with the prisoner’s dilemma mixed with a version of the sunk cost fallacy based on human lives instead of money.

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Borderlands Part 9: The Road to Sanctuary

By Shamus
on Sep 14, 2017
Filed under:
Borderlands

The first chapter or so of the game isn’t important in terms of story, but I want to talk about it because it shows off the strange way this game is torn between its story-focused aspirations and its Diablo II gameplay loop.

The Loop

Pretty random: When doing my play-through for this series, tutorial boss Knuckledragger dropped an orange gun. That`s never happened to me before.

Pretty random: When doing my play-through for this series, tutorial boss Knuckledragger dropped an orange gun. That`s never happened to me before.

Like Diablo and some of the other games built around looting and leveling, there’s a very distinct rhythm to Borderlands 2. You kill some dudes, open some chests, gather some loot. Pretty soon you’ve completed a quest and your inventory is full. So you go back to town, sell off the unwanted loot, stash the stuff you want to keep, and maybe buy some upgrades with the income from the last trip. You turn in quests and get new ones. Once you’ve got fresh gear and a new mandate, it’s time to head back out and repeat the cycle.

It’s a good gameplay loop because it’s giving the player new goals before they’ve exhausted the old ones. I don’t want to quit without turning in this quest. Since I’m turning in a quest, I might as well grab the next one. Oh! I don’t want to quit without cashing in this loot. Once I’ve done that, I might as well check the vending machines to see if I can get an upgrade. Once I’ve got an upgrade it seems ridiculous to quit the game without trying it out in the field. Heck, I’m halfway done with my new quest at this point so I might as well finish it…

It’s a lot like the “one more turn” effect you get in a turn-based strategy game. You’re always looking to your next goal and there never seems to be an obvious window where you could exit the loop and go do something else. You’re always “in the middle of something”.

MrBtongue talked about this loop in his video on Diablo III. It’s a big part of what makes these games “addictive” for some. If the Skinner Box aspect of the game doesn’t hook you, the desire to “finish” things before you exit the game might still trap you in the gameplay loop.

The thing is, you can’t really take part in this loop until you’ve got a town to work from, and it takes a long time to get there.

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No Man’s Sky One Year Later: The More Things Change…

By Shamus
on Sep 12, 2017
Filed under:
Column

After a year of major content updates and gameplay changes, the original sins of No Man’s Sky still permeate the design. There are a lot of little problems, but if you trace the problems back to their roots you’ll see they basically all stem from a couple of really bad ideas: The Inventory System, and Polo.

Polo is certainly the less harmful of the two, but let’s discuss him first.

Seriously, Screw This Guy

I feel the need to point out that there are no windows anywhere on this space station.

I feel the need to point out that there are no windows anywhere on this space station.

Polo is one of the very few named characters in the game. He and his partner Nada appear randomly along your journey. Sometimes you’ll warp to a system and there will be an “Anomaly”, which is what the game calls Nada and Polo’s brutalist styled doom sphere / space station.

In a forum, some internet rando claimed the anomaly is scripted to appear about every two hours. I have no way to confirm that, but it feels about right.

Polo has a series of 16 challenges for you to complete. Although in typical No Man’s Sky style, the game doesn’t tell you what the challenges are, what the rewards will be, or what order they come in. You just show up and talk to Polo. He’ll comment on your journey, and if you’ve completed the latest challenge he’ll give you a reward.

This would be fine if Polo was just dispensing bonus items, but one of the things he gives out is the final tier of Warp reactor. There are four different colors of star systems in the game. In order these are Yellow, Green, Red, Blue. Each tier has new exotic resources to harvest, and each tier requires a warp drive upgrade.

The final warp drive is Polo’s very last reward for his very last challenge. The game has three different overarching goals: The Atlas Quest, the journey to the center of the galaxy, and the (newly added) Artemis storyline. I don’t know about the last one, but to finish either of the first two you will need this warp reactor. Which means Polo is effectively part of the “main quest”.

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TV I’m Watching: Great British Bake-Off

By Shamus
on Sep 10, 2017
Filed under:
Television

A few weeks ago someone asked if I was watching any TV. At the time I said I was watching one show. It turns out this is not remotely true.

I lost interest in television back in 2001 or so. I was sick of the commercials and not interested in planning my entertainment around TV schedules. Besides, TV was expensive and the internet was way more interesting. So we canceled our cable service and that was the last I saw of television for the next decade and a half.

But now? Now “television” is on-demand streaming. Our family subscribes to several streaming services: Amazon Prime, Hulu, Drama Fever, Crunchyroll, and Netflix. Combined, they cost us about what cable TV cost back in 2001. The difference is now we don’t have to put up with commercialsActually Hulu has some commercials and schedule annoyances. I’m not sure anyone still watches it. We should probably cancel it., we can watch when we want, and the overall quality of the content is quite a bit better.

Which means TV (assuming we can still sloppily refer to streaming shows as “TV”) is really different now. In the old days if I said “I watch the A-Team” it meant I had my ass in front of the TV on Tuesday nights. Now if I tell you I watch some particular show, it means I binge through a dozen hours of it once a year. That’s still really strange to me. Like, that’s breaking a 70 year old tradition. To me, the change in viewing habits seems stranger to me than the new methods of delivery. When I was a kid I might have predicted a world of bigger screens, flatter displays, sharper images, better production values, and a shift in cultural standards regarding violence, language, and nudity. But the entire idea of “timeslots”? I figured that concept was as timeless as book binding. That’s just how you deliver that sort of content.

But here we are. Timeslots are dead. That’s pretty cool.

There is one show I’m watching “now” in the sense that I’m actually watching it recently, as opposed to “I’ll binge on it when the next season drops”. The Great British Bake Off.

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Overhaulout Part 4.5: Dish and Dog

By Rutskarn
on Sep 8, 2017
Filed under:
Video Games

Let’s say you’re James.

You’ve decided to go back to the wasteland and fix the water purifier, risks be damned, but the transition from Vault sheets to wasteland streets is worse than you could have possibly imagined. Glowing water and feral dogs and scabrous humans leave you a physically and morally exhausted wreck. In the cynical days of adjustment you become certain you’ll never finish your great work, never reunite with your only child. You’ll be preyed on by a string of greedy wasteland pirates and parasites until all your efforts to help the world are forgotten to the dust of time.

And then you stumble onto Galaxy News Radio and everything changes. Here at last you’ve found another genuine altruist in the hellish melee. He welcomes you, a stranger, into his heavily-guarded studio for an interview where you end up asking all the questions. He is thoughtful, savvy, warm, and patient. When you leave, he broadcasts on his radio station:

So if you see James out there, you say hello. Be kind to our new brother, and show him that here on the outside, we always fight the good fight.

Then after a brief and embarrassing episode in a creepy vault you wander back to the station for a visit and an interview—hoping to give his audience a PSA about drinking water and trusting strange computer programs, perhaps—and after cracking a couple Nukas, Three Dog casually mentions:

“By the way, your kid says hello.”

“What?” You’re stupefied. “My child came here…and didn’t even ask where I’d gone?”

“That did come up. Kind of a whiny kid you’ve got, actually. All ‘wah wah, where’s my dad, where’s my dad.’ And I’m like, does the kid need a night light for pete’s sake?”

“Did you say where I’d gone?”

“I sort of did. I mean, I said I knew where you’d gone, and that I’d share that info…in exchange for just, like, a tiny errand.”

“What errand did you…”

“Steal a giant radio dish from super mutant infested territory. So, you know. A desperate teenager from a soft vault upbringing seemed like the ideal person for the job.”

“How?!”

“Okay, you got me. I just didn’t want to have to ask the paladins to do it.” He checks his calendar. “Come to think of it, all this was a couple months ago. If I had to guess, I’d say your kid really sucked at fighting the good fight.”

The world spins. Your forgotten, shallow breaths lap the open mic—a live feed of your pain and suffering to Three Dog’s many, many worshipers. Your only family just died trying to find you, and died for no reason at all–except a desperate need to find and reunite with you.

“Say,” says Three Dog brightly, “you doing anything right now? And do you know where the museum is?”

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Borderlands Part 8: Welcome Back to Pandora

By Shamus
on Sep 7, 2017
Filed under:
Borderlands

Gearbox had a hit on their hands with Borderlands 1. The problem with making lightning in a bottle like this is that the publisher will immediately turn around and ask you to do it again. Gearbox needed to figure out what worked so they could improve it, and what didn’t work so they could fix it. This sounds easy, but you can envision a lot of ways that could have gone wrong.

We Have a Hit. Now What?

Do the fans want more of this guy, and is that even possible?

Do the fans want more of this guy, and is that even possible?

We know fans love those four original vault hunters, but how do we build on that? Do we have those same four characters go on another adventure? Or maybe we come up with four new characters with the exact same powers and skill trees? Or maybe keep the original four playable charactersAnd reset them to level 1 and hope players don’t mind. and add a few of new ones? Or maybe ignore the old characters and just make four new ones?

Fans like the humor, but how do we use that? Do we make a whole game of Crazy Earl style characters and quests? More Claptrap? Do we pester the player with constant communications from the characters, quipping and mugging all the time? Or do fans really just want the humor to take place when they’re in town, and otherwise leave them alone to enjoy the face-shooting?

Fans didn’t really care for the story. Do they even want one? Assuming they do, what should it be like and what should it be about? Opening another vault? Chasing another vault key? Fighting a different corporation? Or do we flip the script and have them work for one of these amoral corporations? The first game established that the vault can open once every 200 years, so do we set the second game 200 years after the first?

Focus groups are saying they would like Claptrap to spend another 10 or even 15 minutes explaining what respawning is.

Focus groups are saying they would like Claptrap to spend another 10 or even 15 minutes explaining what respawning is.

Do we go to a new planet or stay on Pandora? Do we visit new locations or revisit the old ones? How much do we need to acknowledge the events of the first game? Did the vault close and vanish into legend again, thus preserving the status quo of adventurers searching for a supposed myth? Or did the opening of the vault have far-reaching consequences?

Fans like the looting, but how do we improve on that? Do we give them crappy loot more often? Maybe give them good loot more often? Do we create even more exotic tiers of loot for them to chase? Do we amplify the differential between good gear and fantastic gear? If a player finds an ultra-rare shotgun that trivializes combat, will that make them happy or ruin the gameplayTo be fair, I don’t think ANYONE has a good answer to this question.?

Players liked the setting, but where do we go from here? New planet? Do we keep the desert vibe and give them another game set in arid wastelands full of trash? Would players be able to accept (say) swamp or tundra, or do we need to stick with the climate and color palette we’ve got?

And so on. I’m not saying Gearbox had these exact debates, I’m just trying to show that it’s not always obvious where the second game in a series should go, particularly when the first one was kind of a patchwork.

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No Man’s Sky One Year Later

By Shamus
on Sep 5, 2017
Filed under:
Column

It’s been a year since I last played the captivating, frustrating, and ultimately disappointing No Man’s Sky. There have been some large updates since then, and so I thought now would be a good time to come back and see how the game has evolved. These columns are going to run through September, so you’re basically getting TWO long-form analysis series at the same time. (This and Borderlands.) So I hope you like words.

Speaking of words, a year ago I said:

In fact, I’m hoping [Hello Games] made enough on this game that they can give it another try. I really do think that they have something special here. Imagine if the first iteration of Minecraft had been really awkward, frustrating, had a terrible building interface, and was constantly limiting and undermining your creative abilities because the developer thought the game should be focused on combat. I wouldn’t want the idea of a cube world to die on the vine. I’d want it to get another chance to become the creative, engaging, meme-spawning classic that was embraced as a hobby by millions worldwide.

I am less confident of this now. I really do think you can make a fantastic game using the No Man’s Sky technology. I think there’s a game in here that could create levels of engagement to rival titans like Minecraft or The Sims. There’s a reason those early trailers caused such a sensation. Some people really do have an intergalactic wanderlust. They have a clear desire to see strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and to boldly loot everything that isn’t nailed down.

But at this point I’m not all that eager to see what Hello Games comes up with. I have no idea what’s wrong inside this company, but their approach to designing game mechanics and interface falls somewhere between madness and sadism. In the last year they’ve doubled down on all the worst flaws of the core game. At this point I don’t think anyone at Hello Games is equipped to design a coherent set of gameplay mechanics. They’ve got great technology and a solid art team, but gameplay is a mess and I don’t see how they can change that. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting you have one, and after a year they still haven’t reached that point. It’s not impossible for Hello Games to turn things around, but from the standpoint of momentum and company culture I don’t think it’s likely. This is a company doomed to make very pretty but very shallow and irritating games.

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Timely Game of Thrones Griping 8: The Offseason

By Bob Case
on Sep 4, 2017
Filed under:
Game of Thrones
This series analyzes the show, but sometimes references the books as well. If you read it, expect spoilers for both.

With season seven now wrapped up, it would be good to revisit some of the things I said many moons ago, when I first started my epic journey of complaining about Game of Thrones. Basically, what started all of this was a hypothesis. I believed that the show’s audience was in the early stages of experiencing what Shamus refers to as “story collapse”If you’re not familiar with the term, it’s explained in this series of posts., and that, sometime during the final two seasons, full story collapse would occur, and the show’s reputation would suffer.

The `gitchy feeling` is my pet term for the feeling you get prior to story collapse.

The `gitchy feeling` is my pet term for the feeling you get prior to story collapse.

Was my prediction correct? So far, no. (However, there’s still another season for it to come true.) Instead, many critics did something I didn’t account for: they experienced story collapse, but their opinions on the show’s overall quality didn’t change.

The best (and daftest) show on television

Take this review of season seven from Vox, titled “How Game of Thrones season 7 went awry: The series is so intent on fooling its audience that too much of its storytelling no longer makes sense.” You can read the linked article if you want, but hopefully the title is enough to make you believe me when I say that it’s pretty critical. The author makes many of the same complaints I made in my reviews, and is bothered by many of the same things I was bothered by. “Right at the worst possible time,” he writes, “it’s become all but impossible to figure out just what anything on the show means.”

But then, after more than 1600 unminced words of criticism, the final section of the review starts with the sentence “Please note that none of this means Game of Thrones is bad.” Doesn’t it, though? To me, a TV show with nonsensical storytelling is a bad TV show. But maybe I’m wrong about that.

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Overhaulout Part 4: Mutations

By Rutskarn
on Sep 1, 2017
Filed under:
Video Games

Here’s a question for anyone who’s beaten Fallout 3: what role do super mutants, the most common and iconic enemy in the entire game, play in the main storyline?

Really take a minute. Spool through the mutant-laden story beats: the brawl outside GNR, the mission to the Museum of Technology, the cleansing of the purifier, the expedition to Vault 87. Really let it sink in how much time you spend trading shots with these geeks compared to, say, the Enclave: how much earlier you encounter them, how much more prominent they are, how much more of your resources they eat up.

Now ask yourself again: what role do they actually play in the story?

But we’ve summed it up, haven’t we? They exist. They exist again, again. They shoot and must be shot at. If you find-replaced super mutants with anything else at all, berserk killer robots or cold calculating mercenaries or a platoon of brainless body-snatching coral shrimp, the story wouldn’t really change much. Their agenda and origins and function are immaterial.

I don’t think it’s too fussily formalist to argue that your videogame’s earliest and most common enemies should have a stake in or relevance to the major conflict. I guess you could argue that they demonstrate the altruism of the Brotherhood of Steel by providing an opponent to be combated, but that is an extremely low bar. I’d argue it’s the basic function any antagonist at all would fulfill.

I don’t actually like this idea, and it’s outside the scope of my redesign anyway, but but for the sake of argument consider a Fallout 3 where the player and Brotherhood fought Enclave forces for the whole game. You arrive outside GNR and Enclave troops are trying to capture the radio station. Enclave troops destroy the radio dish to prevent GNR from broadcasting its alerts and organizing the Wasteland. Enclave troops have occupied the purifier searching for your father. Imagine a game, in other words, where the game’s actual antagonist is established as a threat before the midway point of the game. For all that you’d lose in enemy variety and the thrill of discovery and story nuance, isn’t it better to spend your time tangling with your family’s actual nemesis instead of a bunch of staggeringly irrelevant ogres?

There’s no way around it: before we go any further, we’re going to find something to do with our super mutants. Before I do, I’ll show my work and explain what I will and won’t change to get results.

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