Grand Theft Auto V: The Need For Structure

By Shamus Posted Thursday Sep 20, 2018

Filed under: Retrospectives 7 comments

So the story of Grand Theft Auto V is overlong, unfocused, and lacking in any sort of central conflict to drive the plot. At the end we get a choice between three endings, only one of which makes any sense in terms of story structure.

Hey Shamus, you do realize that stories don’t need to stick to a three-act structure, don’t you? There’s no law saying the writer is obligated to wrap everything up for you with a bow at the end?

Okay, fair enough. But that’s like saying dialog doesn’t always need to make sense or characters don’t always need to be consistent. It’s technically true, and if you want to argue that Grand Theft Auto V is deliberately an avant-garde subversion of classic story structure then I technically can’t prove you wrong. But given how much these games work to imitate movies, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to imagine the writer is trying to make a story that works like a classic crime drama, and I think it’s worth examining the game to see how it worked.

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Loot Boxes Are Bad for Publishers, Too

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Sep 19, 2018

Filed under: Column 80 comments

My column this week is my attempt to do something different with the overdone topic of “loot boxes suck and I wish publishers would knock it off”.

Really, I think this entire topic just loops back to the point I was making a year and a half ago when I said that the people running these companies are not gamers, which makes them prone to expensive blunders that would be obvious to someone who knows the products and the culture. If the leadership at EA understood their customers, they could have introduced loot boxes in a way that didn’t make such a mess of things.

I obviously object to loot boxes because they tend to turn a game of system mastery into a slot machine. If a game has loot boxes, then the designer has a strong incentive to un-balance the game as a way to push you into using them. But let’s assume for a moment that I’m an amoral jackass that doesn’t care about videogames. All I want is piles of money. How would I expand the usage of loot boxes across the industry?

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This Dumb Industry: The Pitch Meeting

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Sep 18, 2018

Filed under: Column 72 comments

I have noticed a business opportunity. Sadly, I can’t take advantage of it. I’m already overloaded with projects and have no time for game development. So to get it out of my system, I’m going to explain the idea. This is like a pitch meeting, only instead of asking you for investment money so I can make the game, I’m suggesting you go get the money from someone else and then do it yourself. If you peel away that nonsensical premise, then I suppose you’ll find a very roundabout criticism of Nintendo buried in here somewhere.

This will sound like a lame copycat idea at first, but hear me out. There’s a good reason why this makes financial sense, which I’ll get to eventually. But before we do that, let’s start by talking about this YouTube channel dedicated to streaming Super Mario Maker levels.

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Thinking About Attention

By Shamus Posted Monday Sep 17, 2018

Filed under: Random 51 comments

There’s no podcast this week, so instead I want to talk about this CGP Grey Video, where he talks about how social media is evolving to capture as much of our attention as possible.

The idea is that sites are using metrics and algorithms to refine their behavior to capture more and more of our time. They figure out what attracts us, and refine their feeds to keep that sort of stimulus coming. This produces sort of evolutionary arms race of attention-whoring. The example he gives is where you open an app, check for new content, close it, and then check it again right away. The idea is that we’re spending less time reflecting. We have fewer quiet moments. We’re on a steady drip of content throughout our waking hours. Grey mentions that some of his friends even listen to podcasts in the shower. Trivial content wins out over weighty content. Short content wins out over long. Our brains are forever stuck in this reflexive loop of seeking and consuming ephemeral stimulus.

Link (YouTube)

As Grey made his case, I found it curious that this wasn’t really resonating with me. I check Twitter once or twice a day. Sometimes my phone dies because I forget about it for a couple of days. I visit Facebook once a week for family updates I can’t get elsewhere, and then leave rather than sifting through the remaining noise. While I recognize the behaviors he’s talking about, they don’t seem to be a problem for me.

I don’t think I’m a particularly strong-willed person. I know for a fact I’m susceptible to getting caught in fruitless obsessive behavioral loops. So why doesn’t this impact me? What am I doing differently?

As far as I can tell, my job (this site) is what keeps me from throwing away all my time on social media. I like the validation that comes from sharing my analysis and having other people react to it, and I need lots of quiet time to create that analysis. I don’t get trapped by social media because I’m already hooked on a stronger drug. I’m obsessed with behaviors based on creating content rather than consuming it.

A lot of my personal habits are designed to safeguard my quiet time. If my Twitter feed drags me into groups united by a common outrage, then I start un-following people until it stops. I take a couple of showers a day. I make sure my phone doesn’t give me audible notifications for anything except messages from my immediate family. I use music to drown out distractions.

I’m curious how many people find themselves in the same situation as Grey. Is your day wall-to-wall with low-effort content, to the point where you never have a moment of quiet with your own thoughts? Do you observe this behavior in others around you?

Also, after watching this video I have to ask: Is Grey a wizard? He takes us for a ten-minute walk where he builds a thesis without pausing for a single “um” or “uh”. No pauses, no coughs, and no digressions. You might think he’s working from a script, except he’s walking on uneven ground while also holding a camera. If he was actually reading from a script then he’d be at risk of stumbling on that terrain. So then maybe you’ll think he recorded the footage first and did the voice-over later, except you can tell by the way he’s breathing that he’s really walking. To top it all off, he wraps up his thesis just as he reaches the end of the walk so that he’s talking about sitting quietly just as he reaches a place to sit down.

For contrast: When I record the podcast I’m normally sitting still, in a quiet room, without any distractions. And yet I’m still prone to “uhhh” and “ummm” my way through a topic. For a guy supposedly suffering from chronic distractions, Grey has remarkable mental discipline.



A Collection of Unrelated Facts

By Shamus Posted Sunday Sep 16, 2018

Filed under: Notices 82 comments

The first thing, which I’m sure you’re already noticed, is that the theme is again changed. After gathering feedback for a few weeks and trying different things, it’s clear that having the menu at the top is the most popular option by far.

I apologize if it seems like we came all this way for nothing, but for me this process of theme-switching has been pretty useful. I cleaned up a lot of longstanding annoyances and gathered a lot of interesting use-case data. Thanks for being patient. From here the only things I want are a fix for footnotes on Safari, and maybe some automated system for changing a few colors around for major holidays. (For example, maybe making the main menu orange for Halloween and replacing the D20 with something else.)

Thing the second: No Diecast this week. Sorry. I needed a week off.

Third, I’m done with my first play-though of the new Spider-Man game, and about halfway through my second run. This is easily the best Spider-Man game ever made. It’s certainly one of the best superhero games ever made.

It’s tragic that this is a PlayStation exclusive. Curse this dumb industry.

Having said that: I see a lot of people praising the story, and I’m just not getting that. I guess it does okay when graded against cartoons and the comics, but it’s nothing special. You fight two major (and totally independent from each other) villains in this game, and they both have the same motivations, the same ridiculous nonsense scheme, and the same friend / foe dynamic going with Peter Parker / Spider-Man. This really stands out because you fight both of them near the end and Spidey has almost the same conversation with both of them.

Imagine a version of The Avengers where Loki attacks New York with an army of aliens pouring through a dimensional hole because he’s jealous of Thor, and then twenty minutes later Ultron shows up and attacks New York with an army of aliens pouring through a dimensional hole because he’s jealous of Tony. It’s not wrong or anything, but I did find it strange and distracting. Aside from having two finales so close together, the second was robbed of a lot of its emotional impact by retreading so many ideas.

I have a lot of other little gripes about how they’re constructing their ongoing story, but it’ll have to wait for a longer analysis.

I realize the story isn’t really the point and it’s drawing from source material that suffers from a lot of similar problems with repetitionAlthough in the case of the comics, the repetition exists because the story has been running for almost 60 years.. I only bring this up because the story has been getting some praise and I want to push back on that a little. I would characterize the plot as “mildly interesting and inoffensive”.

Overall, it’s a lot like Batman Arkham City. It’s an instant classic that gets away with a few very questionable storytelling decisions because the rest of it is so damn good.

I’d really like to do a long-form analysis of Spider-Man, but I’m a bit conflicted. This site leans pretty heavily towards the PC, so I’m not sure how many of you will care about a PS4 exclusive. To be clear, this series wouldn’t appear anytime soon. We’ve got about two months left on Grand Theft Auto V, and then almost six months of Mass Effect Andromeda. (Sorry not sorry.) Even if I did do a write-up on Spider-Man, it wouldn’t get posted until May 2019.